Stuart Brown and I ran in the Willis River 35k/50k January 10, 2016. Having read Andy Jones Wilkens report from a few years ago, this sounded like a fun, low key event – http://www.irunfar.com/2013/01/ode-to-the-old-school-ultra-willis-river-50k-report.html
I can’t improve upon what Andy has written about the event, the vibe was exactly as described. The event was smaller this year since the Richmond Road Running club was not sponsoring the event. Thus, there were no racer numbers, and no clock, just the race director’s watch. Runners signed in upon entering the park, and signed out upon finishing the 35k out and back and the final 15k out and back. Barry Kreisa, the race director, kept track of everyone and their times, and volunteers were stationed at 3 aid stations along the course, mile 6, 10, and mile 25, there was also aid at mile 20 (35k finish).
For a January event, the weather, and the timing of the event couldn’t have been planned better. Barry mentioned it was the warmest event in its history, reaching the low 50’s by noon. Rain ended about 2 hours before the event, and the skies were clear by 11 AM. The rain made the course very soggy, but it wasn’t so much rain that the stream crossings were difficult. The mostly pine needle surface felt like running on cushions.
Cumberland State forest is a beautiful place, it is a combination of pine and oak forest. The course follows the Willis River Trail over it’s entire length of 16 miles. The park is located along the trail in a way that running an out and back on one leg gives you 35k, and running the out and back on the other leg gives you an additional 15k. The 35k course is not well used, and it is easy to lose the trail, the final 15k is a well used trail, but it is still easy to get off course here and there. I got off course in the first few miles, I was running behind a group of four and, not looking for course markings, I followed them onto a side trail near the river, when that trail T’ed with the white blaze trail we were supposed to be on, I took a wrong turn. I was heading the wrong direction. I had a feeling I was, and my suspicions were confirmed in a few hundred yards as runners were coming toward me, so I turned around and headed the right way. I stayed on course the rest of the way.
I kept asking myself: “Is this a race, or am I here for fun training run?” It was obvious the guy in first place was racing. And there were a few people who went out fast on the first 35k. It was impossible to know who was stopping at 35k and who was running the entire 50k, so I settled into a comfortable pace with a goal of 6 hours.
With the course setup of 2 out-and-backs, you can see exactly where you are in relation to the field. I was about 7th place after the first turn around, and was running with a guy from Richmond who was retired from the Navy and ran mostly road races. We ran the next 10 miles together and chatted quite a bit, he said he was running the entire 50k. His pace was slightly faster than I wanted to run, but I liked his company, so I ran with him. We kept passing people, and by the aid station at mile 14 we were in 2nd and 3rd place. We finished the 35k, and then he shakes my hand and says he is done which put me in 2nd place for the 50k with 10 miles to go. The leader is probably 30 minutes ahead of me, and I know the next runner isn’t too far behind. I eat half a banana, some almonds, refill my bottle and head out on the second out and back section. As I head out, the third place runner is coming in, so I run with a determined pace.
Only a few miles into the last section I start having intense lateral leg pain, which I have had in the past, but this time it is my left leg where I usually get lateral right leg pain. I walk for a while and then run when I can, but my pace has slowed considerably, and I get passed by a young man who is running very comfortably. I decide to pick up the pace and keep him in my sight. About 2 miles from the final turn-around we see the leader heading to the finish, he is has 3 miles to go, we have 7. I’m running a little more often now, my energy is good, it is just painful to run. I know I can finish, and the faster I go the sooner the pain will end.
I reach the turn around point as the second place runner is leaving. With 5 miles to go I mentally give up the idea of a second place finish, and soon I’ll find out how far ahead I am on the 4th place runner. By the time I see the 4th place runner I estimate I’m 4 miles ahead of him, and I’m running more than walking at this point so I don’t feel any need to pick up my pace, I know I’m comfortably in 3rd place. I then see all the other 50k runners, about 10 in all, including Stuart.
The most interesting part of the run happened about a mile from the finish, all of the sudden I see the second place racer running toward me! He says “Did I make a wrong turn?”, he looks as upset as I would be if I thought I gave up a sizable lead due to a wrong turn. I assured him I was heading the correct direction, and we both headed back toward the finish. I wasn’t trying to catch him and when presented with the opportunity to reclaim second place I thought about it, and then the opportunity disappeared within a few hundred yards because he had a strong finish kick, and soon he was out of sight again.
I finished in 6 hours and 30 minutes, a little longer than my goal, but I was satisfied with how things went. It was my second 50k, having completed the July 2015 CATAss 50k in Shenandoah National Park. My recovery from Willis River was smooth, within 2 days my Heart Rate Variability was back to normal, which let me know I challenged my system, but didn’t overload.
I will be back next year, this was a great event on a nice trail system, with great volunteers that made the event very smooth and fun to run.