By Oksana Lightfield

The year 2020 has definitely proven to be the epic year of legendary challenges. With official races falling like dominoes, cancelled or becoming virtual, our Steeps ultra tribe did not stop running for one minute. In fact, people have been running farther and faster. 

Take Chris Bailey and Elaine Griesbach. On October 10, the two Steeps successfully ran the Catoctin 100-mile Challenge. Chris and Elaine, who participated in a friendly ultra running challenge before, were each looking for an opportunity to run a 100-miler this year. Since the hit of COVID-19 in early March resulted in cancellation of most organized races, the two ultra running buddies, seeking inspiration and motivation despite the unfolding chaos, decided to attempt another friendly challenge — to run their own 100-miler on a grueling but beautiful variation of the former Catoctin 100 Mile Race, originally organized by Jim Treece and his incredible team of volunteers: Vince Vaughn, Mike Holland, Dave Garmin, Jodi Treece, Lance Cummins, Carole and Addie Smith, and Bill Susa. The inaugural race was run in 2009 but after 2011 the race was unfortunately shut down due to permit issues on the Appalachian Trail. 

Jim Treece came up with this astoundingly evil and technical 17,000-foot elevation race, notable for its picturesque nature settings and 180-degree vistas worthy of multiple paintings, nonetheless, in the end, or perhaps because of it, leaving you with an unparalleled sense of pride and accomplishment. He did this out of love. Tough love, indeed. A father who truly loves his offspring and wants him to succeed in life is not the one to solve life’s challenges for him and give it back on a silver platter. Struggle is good. Struggle creates growth. 

Perhaps with this in mind, Jim brought this, in his own words, “brutal race”, into being for his ultra running family and made it completely free of charge. He covered all the expenses. Jim, with his fatherly devotion, and with help and support of his dedicated crew of volunteers, was there at every aid station (a total of 11), tending to nearly all of the race participants at the time. According to Elaine Griesbach,  who is friends with Jim Treece, the race was designed to be the hardest race east of Mississippi.

“5 a.m. start for the Catoctin 100-miler. Updates throughout the day/night,” Chris Bailey resolutely announces in his short Facebook post on October 10. Posing for a quick picture illuminated by their excited smiles that shine brighter than their headlamps, full of optimism, Chris and Elaine seem unaware of what’s to come. And off they go into the darkness. 

The CAT-100 course.

To understand what it is to run the course of the short-lived storybook Catoctin-100, or CAT-100-Is-not-for-Pussies 100 Mile Race, one has to first venture out onto the start of the blue-blazed Catoctin Trail. Rising and falling through Gambrill State Park and Frederick Watershed, following the infamous CAT-50 course, the CAT-100 passes the notorious Seymour’s rock with its stealthy and probably always pissed-off-when-he-is-awake original inhabitant, Seymour, the copperhead snake; it then crosses a 25-foot wide creek, sometimes running as high as your knees, signaling your arrival at Cunningham Falls State Park.

After 15-ish miles of moderately high elevation and some roots and rocks, you might still be feeling fresh and elated, taking it all in. Let your eye wander across the beautiful scenery and nature’s quiet display of the rugged East Coast beauty, interlaced with gentle watercolor pools of mountain laurels against the backsplash of the most vivid green in the spring and summer, or the most peculiar shades and shapes of fungi peeking through the autumn leaf carpet of bright reds, deep ochres, rich mahoganies, and cheerful yellows. Unless, of course, you are running or hiking it in the winter time and can’t stop but admire an ever exquisite fresh blanket of crystal-clear, white snow, crowning the rocks astray in a creek, yet to be disturbed by a runner’s light step. Take it all in. Revel in this beauty and in your mental and physical calm now, because what comes next is not for the faint of heart.  

The expanding cloud of curse words starts manifesting itself at the foot of the dreaded hill named after some guy Bob who probably turns in his grave a few dozen times a day with each passing runner, now turned hiker, cresting the hilltop. But you see, the most beautiful laurels, like most beautiful and treasured things in life, are hard to get to sometimes, which makes it all the sweeter. Situated on the very top of the unrelenting two-miles-of-vert Bob’s Hill, the laurels are a gem. Either Bob didn’t like us or this life, or someone didn’t really like Bob, hence the name of the hill, my logic tells me. But don’t be discouraged — the laurels are so worth it! If not for the laurels, go for the view when the leaves are gone or when the vegetation is still low and you can see far to the north from the Northern Overlook. 

After you are done with Bob for good, or so you hope, you continue downhill for 3-ish miles on paved mountain roads to finally arrive at the Appalachian Trail (AT) trailhead. Take the white-blazed AT northbound, sharing the single track with an occasional hiker or a spooked deer or two, and the muffled memories of Bob will run through your mind yet again, but this time compounded with visions of huge boulders perched precariously on top of one another all around you, over you, and under you, looking straight into your soul, summoning and calling on your physical state, your entire human composition, blatantly questioning your quivering quads and shaky stride with their high brow steps and smug rock faces. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful sight! Good luck running it during the night.

Welcome to Rocksylvania! Our northern neighbor does not disappoint. The undulating vertical rocky trend continues to the turn-around point a couple of miles north of Old Forge Road, at the Chimney Rocks. Congratulations, you are almost half-way done! Sounds hopeful, but it’s another 50+ AT miles from here. At this point, you might be getting slightly tired of running (an understatement, perhaps) and power hiking though roots and rocks. You might have been doing it for roughly 10-12 hours. The day is waning. The worries, the fears, and the insecurities of the night ahead start to emerge and hide in the darkest corners of your brain, like pitch-black morphing, fluid ravens from your nightmares, lurking somewhere deep down below, waiting to pounce at you like a mountain lion in the twilight when you least expect it.

Inspiration is what you need, it is what you crave the most while trying to achieve anything worthwhile. Inspiration is crucial to your heart and soul as well as your mental and physical A-game. Inspiration in ultra running is like drawing in your muse’s talents and their incredible energy with all your breath and mixing it in with your own weary self. It is like drinking the ever eluding elixir of life out of the proverbial Holy Grail. Holy Grail is what you hope you would find at the 50-mile mark of the CAT-100 on the Appalachian Trail, with 50 more miles to go. 

Lindsey Weaver knows all about it. She must have found the life-giving source at the 50-mile mark, and then again at the 100-mile mark, and yet again at every mile after that, all the way to the C&O Canal’s Mile Post 0 — a total of 184.5 miles.

Elaine Griesbach was never a stranger to finding her muses close by.

“Ultra running is an empty slate to run far, lead by our imagination, and motivated by others”, she reflects.

Her muses and motivators are her friends, the very people she runs with every week. At the May start of one of her Year 2020 Challenges — 12×10 + 50-K (10 miles every day for 12 days and a 50-K on Day 13) — Elaine thanks her friends and running buddies and praises them for their own personal achievements while participating in the same challenge. She, too, just like Lindsey and so many more of us, runners, finds her own Holy Grail, and outlines it quite perfectly: 

Each of these moments (and so many others) I put into my pocket and when things get hard, I reach deep down, pull one out, and it motivates me. Thank you friends, keep it up!!

Elaine Griesbach

When you get back to Maryland across the PenMar line on the AT, the night has already enveloped the Earth. That bitchy section going up to High Rock on nothing but slippery-bitch rock faces is sitting heavily on your mind. You might decide that you are done at this point and call it a day at PenMar. Not Chris. Not Elaine. Not Eva Pastalkova who won the second CAT-100 in May of 2010 (there were no finishers in the inaugural CAT-100 held in 2009). Not Lisa (Johnston) Peabody who was first female in 2011. Not John Godinet who ran alongside Lisa to finish together. Not any one of them, the mere 13 elite, unique individuals, who over the course of various years took on the challenge of this not-for-pussies kind of experiment, decided to give up and call it a day. Including Jim Treece in 2010, the mastermind of it all, the venerable Jim Treece, the original CAT-100 Race Director. 

We have yet to hear first-hand the amazing stories of Elaine Griesbach and Chris Bailey’s fortitude while pushing onward and pursuing their own finish line of CAT-100. I am sure it will be something unforgettable and worthy of inspirational awe that we can all bank for ourselves, carefully storing it in the ripples of our brains, in the folds of our hearts, ready for retrieval at any given moment. 

What is it with ultra runners and challenges, you might ask. From the early evolutionary days of the Homo sapiens species, “with our erect posture and bipedal locomotion, our large brains and complex language, our highly advanced and organized societies, our ability to create complex social structures composed of many cooperating and competing [running?] groups,” as the Wikipedia informs us, we have come a long way! 

Long gone are the days of duels but the #ChallengeAccepted trend, however, proliferated, albeit in a different shape and form. Now we try to support one another, not kill. Or do we? If there were no challenges, there would be no breakthroughs, seems simple enough. Even if you take a friendly ultra running challenge, what everyone is getting out of it is their own individual personal bests while supporting and encouraging one another, therefore enabling them to reach higher. Always striving, per aspera ad astra, — this is the ultimate definition of us as human beings.

Chris Bailey finds lots of motivation in challenges, and frequently challenges himself:

At the beginning of the year, I made up Chris’s 2020 Run Challenge, which is four separate accomplishments to be done by the end of the year: 1) 200,200 feet of elevation gain; 2) 20,200 minutes of running; 3) 2,020 miles of running; and 4) 220 separate runs.

Chris Bailey

Midway through the year, Chris was roughly halfway done with the mileage and the total number of runs, well over halfway done with the elevation gain, but had only recorded 9,300 minutes of running.  

“I’m thinking the minutes will be the biggest challenge!” lamented Chris in his Facebook post. 

I am thinking, Bob and CAT, meet Chris and Elaine! #ChallengeAccepted hash tag, you ain’t seen nothing yet! But I’m also thinking, Chris, maybe try running a bit slower.

Running slow is not an option for Chris, however, who took first place overall at Dam Yeti 50-K earlier this year. Even though this year’s course fell about 4 miles short of a 50-K, Chris ran an insane 3 hours and 29 minutes to win first place. Chris, no wonder you are struggling to rack up more minutes in your challenge. This epic year of challenges is not done yet though, and I’m sure Chris will reach and surpass his own goal. As it stands today, he is at 15,221 minutes. Per aspera ad astra!

As you continue on the course past PenMar and High Rock, you are running in the dark. It is the “going home” stretch now, but it doesn’t mean it is any easier or any “homier”. Bob’s Hill is a distant memory by now, but you still need to deal with plenty of elevation, steep but short, treacherous roots and jagged rocks, stacked upright at just enough distance to make sure your sneakered foot never could fit in between them, no matter how you put it, making it a torturous experience of sustained landing on sharp objects, constant tripping and fear of rolling an ankle. Here’s an old Eastern European superstition for you: knock on wood three times and spit over your left shoulder, also done three times. You will, hands down, prevent any wrongdoing on your own sorry-ass part and ward off the devil. (Don’t worry, you will blend right in if you do so in Ukraine, or in my family for that matter. I will welcome you with open arms!) Nobody wants to hurt themselves at this point in the race. Anything works. I’ll spit if I have to!

It is funny how your mind can be your greatest ally and could also be your greatest opponent. It is a matter of how you look at things. As I mentioned before, ultra running is not for the faint of heart. It is just as important to train your psyche as it is to train your body. Dr. Eva Pastalkova, Ph.D., the first and the fastest winner of the original CAT-100, completing it in 24 hours 47 minutes, might have had an edge, being a Doctor of Neuroscience. She dug deep when it became painfully hard, terrifyingly dark, penetratingly cold, and with no end in sight to this self-inflicted sufferfest, but still plenty of rocks and vert to cover. So did Elaine and Chris. They had no choice but to dig deep and persevere. Human race, people. Per aspera ad astra. Through hardships to the stars.  

And to the stars they went, in all of their glorious being, their aspirations, their wishes and desires, hopes and dreams, black toes and chaffed rear ends.  I’ll stop here. The training months, weeks, days, and hours spent in preparation, the advice from the wise, the planning, the worrying, the fretting, the calculating — all of that on brave display for the stars. Good or bad? Yea or nay? Who is the final judge of all your hard work? Not surprisingly, the final decision is made in your own brain, with your own thoughts, whispering softly in your ears. What will you hear? Will it be praise or will it be scorn? YOU are the final judge. You are in control of either amplifying the message or subduing it and nipping it in the bud. Choose the message wisely.

If you’ve ever run or hiked the section of the JFK 50-Miler on the Appalachian Trail, you know exactly how hard it is. Imagine running it in the dead of night in October, already on mile 75, and with 20+ miles to go. Holy Grail, where are you? I need you now! It is great if you can run with pacers at this point, an option Elaine was lucky enough to have (Chris ran solo all 100+ miles), and it is absolutely wonderful that Chris and Elaine had each other, albeit briefly, while passing each other at aid stations, and the support of their out-of-this-world badass friends who were there to help them succeed by manning the aid stations and meeting them at the end. 

Your final judge, the brain, the central governor, finally registers the breaking of the ambient light. You welcome the first crack of daylight from the cliffs of Weaverton and you thank God, the Universe, Mother Nature, or whomever else you muster to remember at this point (your muse and inspiration?), for still being alive and moving. Alive and moving. This is key. Forget the pace, forget the splits. Alive and moving. Putting one foot in front of the other. This becomes the ultimate task of your whole existence in this space. Did you just step on a rock, or did the rock step on you? You can’t be sure. Your dreams become reality and vice versa. The veil between the two is so thin, you doubt your own senses. You become one with the trail. You, the roots, the fallen tree limbs, the leaves, the rocks — all move in one plane and influence each other’s movement in space. You might as well be superhuman at this point. 

Eventually, the C&O canal emerges surreally from the ground and looks so appetizingly easy and comforting. Oh, the long-awaited flatness. You welcome the developing morning and, hopefully, core-warming rays of sunshine. Wouldn’t it be great to be done right here, right now? It is the ultimate fantasy, you almost see something, could it be the finish line, a chair, or a bench that looks every bit as comfortable as your own warm bed. Cue the evil laugh. Oh, Jim the RD, Jim the mastermind, Jim Treece, the ultra man who started it all, who made it cool and avant-garde to wear a pussy on your T-shirt. How can I give it gently to you, my audience, my partners in reading crime, my #ChallengeAccepted cheerleading squad, my running people?! No! Not another vert, you’ll say, not another m*&#%@-f&@%ing hill!

Who put it there??

Jim Treece! Blame him.

And so they forged ahead. 

Another vert, another hill,

Another breath they’ve drawn.

Yes, after all this grueling work and lack of sleep, Elaine and Chris (as did their  fellow CAT-100 race finishers in the past), after 25+ hours of running on a tough terrain, face a 4-mile trek on a flat towpath to Maryland Heights, then a total of 4 miles ascent and descent, and finally another 5-mile trek back to the finish at the Hill Side Hotel. Cue the dramatic music here.

Was it the notion of one of the heaviest Civil War cannons with its nearly 10-ton phallic symbol of a tube that someone had the guts and strength to haul and place atop of Maryland Heights during the Civil War that gave pep and meaning to Chris and Elaine’s slowing stride climbing up the west face of MD Heights? Bob’s Hill seems like such a good old friend now. Was it pure will? Holy Grail? Physical strength and endless endurance? A mixture of all of the above? We, the peanut gallery, can only wonder. 

“My goal was to give back to the local ultra community,” states Jim Treece simply, referring to what drove him in his creation of CAT-100. He summarizes further:

I see [Chris and Elaine] in the future continuing the tradition of trail runners helping each other accomplish difficult or what others might think are impossible feats.

Jim Treece

I am happy to report that both Chris and Elaine made it down the final mountain safely and in one piece and finished their friendly CAT-100 Challenge in under 30 hours! 29 hours 07 minutes 42 seconds reads Chris’s Strava recording and 29 hours 48 minutes 54 seconds for Elaine. Way to go, my friends! This is an incredible accomplishment, considering that the average  CAT-100 finishing rate was only 35%. 

A Strava recording of the CAT-100

When asked, what motivated them to run the course of CAT-100 this year, both Chris and Elaine agreed on the fact that they both have been training this year for different 100-mile races that ended up being cancelled, and neither of them wanted to let all that hard work “go to waste,” as Elaine explains and further elaborates: 

“When [a friend] brought up CAT, the wheels started turning and I began adding in elevation and rock training the last two months to prepare for CAT.”

Says Chris, “I saw the course and immediately wanted to do it!”

Chris and Elaine, a job well-done! May you never run out of challenges and always find wicked inspiration in the company of good friends, thus inspiring us all. That is what it’s all about. Rock on!