I first heard about the Singletrack Maniac in February, but I was already committed to run Promise Land as my spring goal race at the end of April. So I filed it away and just waited to see how I felt after PL before signing up for SM, which happened to fall merely a week later. When PL morphed into more of a 26-mile run followed by a ridiculous 3-mile mountain climb and, thanks to my traitorous stomach, a 5-mile recovery walk to the finish line, my body actually felt pretty good afterward, and by Tuesday I was ready to hit the register button for SM.
About the race: This was a first-year race that took place at Freedom Park just outside Williamsburg. I’ve done two first-year races before (a 5k and a half-marathon) and both of them have had some major glitches. And this race was being put on by a county rec department – what would they know about running ultras? I’ve learned to approach first-year races expecting the worst, and was pleasantly surprised when this one turned out to be among the best-run events I’ve done.
The name of this race is appropriate for the course – most of it is run on singletrack hiking/biking trails through beautiful forests. There is a dirt/gravel service road that connects the trails, and a couple short segments of pavement, but otherwise it’s mile after mile of twisty, rooty trail. I wasn’t sure how to approach this race – having run a very tough race just a week before, I knew my body wasn’t going to be in top shape. But this course promised to be far easier than PL, simply by the fact that it wasn’t in the mountains. I wanted to take the course and the distance seriously, but still anticipated that I would fare much better than the previous week. I also wanted to use it as a chance to work out my nutrition, which had failed me the previous weekend.
The race was run essentially on three 4- to 5-mile trail loops (Trails A, D and E), each of them covered twice during the race. According to my Garmin (which I wouldn’t trust farther than I could throw it), there were about 2,000 feet of elevation gain on the course. There are no big climbs, but the course is constantly rolling and there are very few flat or straight sections.
Race morning: I traveled to Williamsburg the morning of the race, having worked the previous evening. That meant a 3:45 a.m. alarm, probably the earliest I’ve ever gotten up for a race. The race started and finished at a middle school, and it was a nice touch that the locker rooms were available before and after the race to provide showers, restrooms and a warm place to hang out in the 45-degree pre-dawn. About 40 to 50 runners lined up for this inaugural race, listened to a final briefing by the race director and then set off as the first beams of sunlight peeked through the clouds.
The race: With the exception of a handful of speedsters, the majority of the racers set out at a relaxed, conversational pace. I got a chance to catch up with Meg, who I met at Icy-8 and have run into at several other races this spring. After a brief out-and-back on the main road, the course ducked onto the fire road and then onto loop A. The running was very easy, and, after a mile or so on loop A, I told Meg that if the trails were like this all day, I was going to be a very happy runner. The forest was quiet and beautiful, and the thin singletrack trail was well defined and covered with a soft layer of pine needles. It was probably one of the best trails I’ve ever run on.
The pack spread out quickly, and I had another one of those moments like I experienced at Instant Classic, where I wondered if I was actually in last place (I wasn’t). Meg and I ran together, chatting occasionally but otherwise immersed in the experience. I was so immersed that I didn’t notice when, at mile 5, a root literally rose from the earth and grabbed my foot. I took a hard spill – my first-ever fall during a race. But the trail itself was so soft and forgiving that I was able to hop back up and continue on without a thought.
At the exit of the first loop Meg stopped at the aid station but I continued on. We had taken the first loop pretty easy and I was feeling good and didn’t really need anything at that point. I passed a handful of other runners as I picked up the pace a bit and made the second trip around the A loop without incident.
After the second time through A, I stopped to refill my CamelBak and saw the race leaders cruising by as they finished the 2-mile out-and-back road section upon which I was about to embark. I got my Tailwind topped off and set out on the road to the turnaround at the entrance of the park. It was a great chance to see who was ahead of me and who was behind. I didn’t count, but there were about 15 people in front of me and several behind.
The out-and-back done, it was time to resume the trails, this time heading to loop D. Before hitting D I stopped at the aid station to peruse the menu. There was an amazing selection of tasty treats at each of the aid stations, but what jumped out at me for some reason were the Fig Newtons. So I grabbed a couple and made the right turn onto D.
As soon as I set foot on the trail I knew this one was going to be more challenging than A. The A loop had been a nice, gentle introduction to the trails, but D was getting a little more serious. Again, there were no big climbs, but the trail was constantly going up or down and twisting so much that you could only see a hundred feet or less of the path ahead of you at any moment. There were also plenty of roots, but they were often obscured under that luscious bed of pine needles and leaves. So you would find yourself cruising along and suddenly your foot would smash against something you hadn’t seen and send you flying. I was fortunate to be able to steady myself without falling, but the stress accumulates as the muscles all over your body suddenly and repeatedly tense up as you try to maintain balance. My arms, lats and shoulders have never been so sore after a race.
I pressed on, not having stopped running in the 13 miles up to this point except to pause briefly at the aid stations. We crossed a bridge and headed up a segment called, appropriately, “The Switchbacks.” I caught and passed another runner here, as I felt strong climbing this area. The back section of the D loop was noticeably tougher with a lot of steady inclines and lots of twists and turns. It was impossible to gain any kind of momentum due to the constantly changing nature of the trail. I was noticing that a lot of minor muscles in my hips and upper legs, and my right knee, were staring to get more sore than I’ve experienced before. This was due to the fact that there was a lot of non-frontal running on this course – my legs were often moving in a completely different range of motion as I navigated the trails, swaying from side to side in addition to moving forward.
I took my second spill of the day around mile 17 while I was nibbling a Fig Newton. This was an all-out belly flop that forced a massive “HUMPH” from my lungs as the air was forced out by the impact. Other than a few small scratches on my knees I was fine, even though I was more than a little annoyed to have watched the last bit of Newton fly 10 feet ahead and roll through the dirt.
About a mile later I was thankful to hear the volunteers’ voices that signaled the aid station at the end of Loop D. It had been a tough loop and, at Mile 18, I was growing a bit tired. My stomach was starting to feel heavy again, though not as bad (and not as early in the race) as last weekend. After having my number checked I set off on Loop E, which begins directly across the fire road from the exit of D. I immediately noticed that this trail was much easier, and these 3.7 miles passed relatively easily and without major incident. Mentally this was a no-man’s land – my body was starting to tire and I still had a half-marathon ahead of me, including another round of that dreaded D loop. I just tried to stay focused on the moment and not on the larger task that remained ahead of me.
The E loop spits you out at the fire road across from the entrance to D. One more complete loop of D and E, and then there would only be the 1 mile back to the finish line. It was a nice mental boost to finally be past the 21-mile mark, with single-digit mileage ahead. I stopped at the aid station here to refill my CamelBak, this time with plain water as I was worried about the growing discomfort in my stomach. It wasn’t bad yet, but it was there. I overheard a volunteer mention Promise Land and I perked up out of my haze to say that I had run it also. They asked me about my experience and how it compared to the current race. It was actually really nice to have a short conversation with the volunteers – not only did it pull me out of my race fog and away from my constant focus on my immediate physical condition, but the volunteers’ reactions reminded me that it was a pretty cool thing to be running ultras on back-to-back weekends. (Let me say here that the volunteers at every aid station were awesome – it felt like there were more volunteers than racers on the course.)
After that brief interlude I actually felt refreshed and ready to tackle D again. That didn’t last too long, though, as the loop begins to take its toll quickly. I was still running, having set a goal to not walk a step at least through the marathon distance. The running was much slower, however. The back stretch of D was the hardest part of the race, mentally and physically. It was somewhere around 23-24 miles in, the trail was relentless, my legs were getting tired and my stomach was feeling worse. I was sure another puke-fest was imminent. I finally gave in and walked one of the steeper climbs – only about 20 yards – and pulled a Fig Newton from my pocket. A few moments after taking a small nibble, I realized my stomach had completely settled. I was frankly amazed and excited. Had I found an antidote to my stomach issues? Are Fig Newtons the magic ultra food?
Feeling better, I ran onward. The trails are marked in half-mile increments and I just ticked them off one by one. At last I reached the end of the D loop and mile 26.5 – it was time for one last aid station stop before finishing this thing up. At the aid station I heard that the top three guys had already finished in about 4:30. Sheesh.
Worn down and slow, I was happy that the easy E loop was all that stood between me and the finish. I continued running, but it was very deliberate – not much faster than a fast walk. I heard two runners approaching from behind and was determined to not let them pass me – I hadn’t been passed up to that point in the entire race once the field had settled after the start.
A surge of energy/inspiration came over me at the 2-miles-to-go marker and I started running a bit faster. The people behind me faded back and I quickly caught up to another runner who was being paced by his young son. I ran past him going uphill and pressed on through the end of E and the checkpoint at the aid station. The guys there asked me if I needed a top-off but I ran through, locked into a groove and ready to tackle the fire-road climb back to the main road.
The climb was tough after 30 miles on trails, but somehow I was able to run strong all the way up, onto the road and all the way to the school’s sports fields where the finish line awaited. It seemed like a very long mile but I covered it in a little over 8 minutes, finishing with a fist pump at 5:51:18. I crossed the line at such a pace as to almost knock over the volunteer that eagerly stepped forward to drape the medal around my neck. In this small field, my time was good for 13th place overall (and 6th in my age group – it’s hard racing as a male in my 30s). My only real goal had been to break 6 hours, and that had been accomplished with minutes to spare. There were probably less than 10 people at the finish – a handful of volunteers and racers that had recently finished – but they all cheered loudly as I approached and crossed the line, and each runner came to shake my hand. I felt more welcomed in that small crowd than I have at the finish line of many a larger race.
Post-race: After the race I got a chance to ask the race director about the origins of this event. I wondered why a county rec department would choose to put on a 50k rather than a more popular distance such as a half or full marathon. It turns out – no surprise here – that she’s an accomplished ultra runner herself. She was looking to put on an event that showcased the fantastic trails in this park, and there was no other ultra in the area. She just happens to be the wellness director for the county and was able to get their backing for the event. It was obvious to me from every aspect of the race – the well marked course, the well stocked aid stations, the smooth organization, the enthusiastic volunteers – that this race was put on by people who love the sport and know what it’s about. I definitely hope to return next year
What’s next: The thing about running ultras is that you meet other ultra runners along the way. And as soon as you’ve met a couple, you’ve heard of feats of awesomeness that easily eclipse anything you’ve ever done. I’ve met people who have run 50k training runs on back-to-back days, and run 100 or more miles in a single day. For me, running two 50ks on consecutive Saturdays is well beyond any endurance activity I’ve pursued. This was my fifth ultra – I ran my first just less than a year ago. I’ve been humbled to go from a faster road runner to a back-of-the-pack ultra athlete.
I’m very happy with my sub-6 finish this weekend – it was the fastest pace in which I’ve finished an ultra – but there’s a ton of room for improvement. I have a road marathon PR of 3:23. I finished Instant Classic in 4 hours just a little over a month ago, and if you add 5 more miles at the same average pace you get a 4:52 50k time. While those trails were a bit easier than those I ran this weekend, I know I have it in me to run a sub-5 50k at some point. It’s a matter of building my endurance to get me through those later miles. The same goes for my goal to run a 50-mile race – I have to find a way to get past that 30-mile fade to tackle 20 more miles.
But now it’s time for a little rest after a busy spring racing season.