I like mountains. I like trails. I like to run. So why hadn't I done a trail race before?
Good question, I told myself as I stood shivering in the gathering light of a Blue Ridge mountains sunrise. It was 35 degrees and breezy at Royal Oaks Resort, a small collection of cabins just off the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Wintergreen. I'd signed up for the Belmonte 25K last year but had to bail because of pneumonia. The organizers had graciously rolled over the entry to this year, but the race really wasn't on my radar. My running felt great, but I'd been concentrating on shorter distance foot races and cycling. Hard to see how this was going to turn out.
There were actually three races going on that day -- my 25K, plus a 50K and a 50 miler. All were following the same course, but with different turnaround points on the out-and-back course. I tried to blend in with the crowd -- a little different than the usual road race. A few more beards, a lot of Camelbacks, some runners with dogs, and a crapload of tattoos. A couple of burly guys in kilts rounded out the scene.
After a moment of silence for Boston, we took off. I lopped along in the back, determined not to burn out early -- I'd seen the elevation profile, and I knew what it was to hike up in these mountains. Our first two miles followed the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) south and downwards, then we ducked off the trail into woods to the east. The single track was well graded here, with a gentle downward slope, and I settled into the train of runners, moving up past a few slower ones.
Then in the distance I heard a smattering of whoops and hollers, getting louder as we got closer. A stream crossing, made deep and fast by the previous night's rain was backing up traffic. Some scouted up or downstream for a crossing, but most plunged right in with water over their knees and forged ahead. With a shout of "once more into the breech" I followed suit. Now it was my turn to give a yell -- it was COLD!
Now the trail turned west and back up towards the BRP, with sunlight illuminating the sides of Whiteoak Canyon as we climbed. I ran and powerwalked and moved past several more runners, scraping against the underbrush each time. We recrossed the Parkway to the first water stop and I stopped to chat with Carmel who'd driven down from the start. I fired down a gel, refilled my water and reentered the woods.
The trail wound upwards now, as I ran along Indian file with a group of about 10 other guys, chatting it up as we ascended. Gradually the trees grew shorter and the trail rockier -- a sure sign we were near the top of the ridge line. Our pack came apart as runners began to tire or started to surge and I settled in leading a "B" pace group. At the top we turned right onto a rutted jeep road -- a veritable super highway compared to the trail and began to descend. By now we were starting to see 25K runners coming back. They looked young -- and fast.
After a few minutes we hit the first real aid station. I topped off my bottle, and grabbed some peanut M and Ms (great idea) and some saltines with peanut butter (not so great). As I choked down the saltines, the trail started down. It was full on prevent disaster mode for a while as I slid down some steep scree, and hopped from rock to rock. After a few the trail began a set of well-graded switchbacks and I could hear the sound of a stream at the bottom of the ravine.
We hit bottom, only to encounter the 25K turn around sign. I'd checked the map, so I knew it was coming, but it didn't make me look forward to turning around and going right back up. I set off up the mountain in my best power hiking mode, and started to catch a few of the runners in front of me. After a blazing fast 19 minute mile I was back at the aid station -- this time I skipped the saltines (more Peanut M and Ms, please!)
After reascending the jeep trail I turned back onto the single track. This was one of the toughest sections. I head to pick carefully through the rocks as I went down, and my quads felt like they were being attacked by dwarves armed with ball-peen hammers. Younger, nimbler runners I'd passed on the uphill started overtaking me. I hated them.
Finally the trail smoothed out and I could start to stretch out and run again. As I picked up speed the Virginia Trail Rock, a native of the area. launched itself from its camouflaged burrow and attacked my left foot. With a loud OOOOFFFF I hit the ground and slid. Then my calves cramped up. As I rolled around on the trail I understood the appeal of trail racing. In a big city race spectators and other runners would have rushed to my aid. EMTs might have been called. Pictures and video would have been taken. But here I was on my own. No one in front, no one behind. Suck it up buttercup.
I finally got up and worked out the cramp. No lasting damage -- a scraped knee and thigh and a couple of scrapes on my forearm and hand. Fortunately the arm warmers I was wearing protected my skin from anything worse. After a few I started to jog along and got back up to speed.
Soon I hit the BRP again, where Carmel was waiting. I showed off my battle scars, got some water and a gel and dug in. Just three more miles of trails, then back on the blacktop. I descended back to the stream crossing, which felt pretty darned good this time and started ascending back to the road.
As I climbed the trail I saw a sight to warm my heart. Other runners. Walking. I started picking off single runners and pairs until we hit the Parkway again. The blacktop warmed my heart and loosened up my stride. More runners came into view as I ascended -- I'd paced it well and had plenty in the tank as I came across the line.
I found out later I won my AG, though I didn't stick around for awards. A plate of hot macaroni and cheese and a lot of potato chips was plenty of award. Trail running -- I might grow to like this...