2014 Promise Land 50k++ Race Report

Long story short:

Ran my third Promise Land 50k in Bedford, VA in 7:05 (12:30 pace overall), PRing by 57 minutes from last year. I was seeded 53 of 92 females and beat — no, demolished — my seed, finishing 28th of 82 females, 155 out of 333 overall. 345 runners started, 333 finished.

My goal was to improve upon my 8:03 time from last April, but didn’t think I could shave off more than a few minutes because 2013’s 8:02 was a 18-minute improvement from my first PL time of 8:20. More troubling, though, was that even though I had a very good day at Bull Run Run 50 two weeks ago, I was sure running those fairly flat miles served absolutely no training purpose for a mountain ultra.

Apparently, I was wrong. <grin>

The race is 31 “Horton miles”, generally agreed to actually be ~34 miles, over ~7,400 feet of gain and an equal amount of loss, some very tough climbs, and great descents, some technical trails, and some soft grassy roads. The most difficult/misery-inducing part of the race is the climb up to Apple Orchard Falls, the signature mark of the event, stunning waterfalls that help ameliorate the pain. There is a 10 hour cut-off, with two intermediate cut-offs at Sunset Fields (9:05 am, AS #3, mile ~12) and Cornelius Creek (1:30 pm, AS #6, mile ~24).

This is my favorite of all the races in the Lynchburg Ultra & Beast Series because of the:

  •  Awesome start/finish location: A big grassy field greets the majority of runners who camp — a must do — the night before the race. There’s an endless pizza dinner supplemented by a ridiculous array of cookies! brownies, cake! candy! donuts! you name it (mostly to pacify David’s insatiable sweet tooth!) and a bonfire Friday night. After crossing the finish line, there is a great cookout for all runners and crew on Saturday.
  •  Spectacular views! The highest elevation is just over 4,000 feet, starting and finishing at 1,200 feet, and spring is finally in all of its glory, in full bloom.
  •  Unique finishers’ prize: Patagonia running shorts, which is pretty neat and a welcome change from a technical t-shirt (not that I’m complaining!)

Forecast was calling for lows in the 50s and high in the 80s. Basically applied what I learned at Bull Run Run 50 — no reason to walk unless I am severely injured or the terrain is *so* steep that it’s not possible — and ran/shuffled all day. Felt surprisingly good, both physically and mentally, with no lows and when I wasn’t chatting with fellow runners, I prayed, thanking Him for the many blessings in my life.

The long of it:
I had Friday off and spent the morning preparing bacon brittle for my friends and a vanilla cheesecake for Horton. Picked up a six pack of Sour Power (an assortment of sour beer, my favorite) and packed my gear & sleeping bag. It had been raining and thunderstorming hard on and off all day (better today than tomorrow!), but the skies were looking clear as I drove into the Promise Land Youth Camp.

Parking was already a bit chaotic, but found a spot amid the tents. Made the rounds to say hello, add my cheesecake to the dessert table, and picked up my bib. The t-shirts looked *great*! Horton (or perhaps the printer) had chosen black and the ominous photo of the steps leading up to Apple Orchard Falls really popped. But I grimaced seeing he had added my name to the shirt. It wasn’t *my* photo and I was unable to hunt down the photographer to give proper credit, so I asked the printer to not credit me with the design. Sigh.

Found fellow VHTRC peeps Danny R., Jesse F., Rob C., and Larry H., (who I will pace 40 miles at Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 next month) and pulled out my camping chair to join them in some pre-race festivities (beer). We saw other folks eating pizza and made our way to the dinner. Scarfed down three slices of Domino’s pizza (nom nom nom) and mingled a bit more before the pre-race meeting, at which I won a $125 gift certificate for Patagonia shoes! Sweet! Momma could always use new kicks!

After the meeting, we reconvened by Danny R’s truck and Dan A., Tony E., and Angela F. — all of whom are running MMT 100 in May — joined us. I *really* like all the Liberty and Hokie kids, but, damn, it’s nice to hang out with people my own age. I could’ve eaten pizza and drank beer all night, but said good night to everyone instead.

I’m small enough to fit comfortably in the back seat of my car, so I didn’t bother setting up my tent — plus, the idea of breaking it down at 4 am or after running 34+ miles is not one bit appealing. Fell asleep quickly (thanks to the two beers, no doubt) and slept solidly.

Woke up at 4 am and the first order of business, after brushing my teeth, was to drink coffee, in the hopes of cajoling the bowels to do a number two. Ate a blueberry bagel with cream cheese and leftover spicy chicken tenders (an odd choice, I know).

Ran into my good friend and training partner Jamie M. in the ladies’ room and she braided my hair into two long pigtails, which is sorta becoming my “look” on any given race day. Downed a second cup of coffee and got changed into a Danskin tank top and sport bra, Patagonia Promise Land finishers shorts (a reminder to myself that I’ve *finished* this race before), thin Injinji toe socks, Dirty Girl gaiters, Altra Olympus, & my Suunto Ambit2. I decided to forgo the Mountain Hardwear Fluid race vest once again, hoping two Camelbaks, with 20 oz. bottles each filled with slices of fresh ginger, would be sufficient. Stuffed two GUs in my shorts, two in one handheld, and a baggie of SaltStick caps, Aleve, and Tums into the other.

Still no urge to poop. Ah, cruel, cruel, running gods, what kind of sacrifice must I make in order to have poop before a race? I shall never know.

After singing the Star-Spangled Banner, it was go time!

My last training run with Jamie M. was from the start to the first aid station and I fussed at her to run the entire way. 2.7 miles to the first aid station and it’s all up, up, up on gravel road from the get-go. I decided I didn’t want to start out conservative and save my legs for later; I was gonna run it. Horton drove past, heckling the runners, and I shouted, “Don’t yell at me. I’m running, see?” and he replied, “No! You *shouldn’t* be running now!” Wait. What? Really? Oops. I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not! I joined the masses in walking, but was only a few yards away from the aid station (Overstreet Falls, 2.7 miles) and returned to shuffling up the climb, now on the trails.

Ran with Jordan W. for a few minutes. Jordan W. is a front of pack runner, both an accomplished tri athlete, trail and road runner, who is a Liberty alumni. He, very impressively, ran the Boston Marathon only *five* days earlier AND, even more amazingly, LEAD the first mile — as in, he was in front of the eventual winner, Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall, and the other elites — running a SUB-5 MINUTE MILE. Though incredibly humble, Jordan earned quite a bit of fame with a photo of him in the lead pack on the front page of the NY Times that went viral online. He was, quite understandably, taking it easy, and I was amused to have been able to even run and talk with him, marveling that I was already having a good day. Or was I really exerting myself too early?

This next section would be the longest stretch between aid stations, but at least it was finally time to descend. I caught up with Bethany W., a fast, young one who has been running really well this year, consistently placing in the top 20 women. For once, I wasn’t worried about keeping up; she was running the same pace and we stuck together, talking about nutrition and racing, until we reached the second aid station, Reed Creek (8.6 miles). I stopped for orange slices (I forgot to eat any fruit for breakfast), two cups of ginger ale, and to refill my bottles.

Now it was time to climb again. The White Oak Ridge loop is also part of Terrapin Mountain 50k, though we don’t do the full loop; instead, we go up all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway. At Terrapin, I typically walk entirely too much of this section and was determined to keep my slow shuffle going. Here, I caught up with Rob C., with whom I’d actually never run. Usually, I’d see him before or after a run/race — never during, as he’s a pretty fast guy, who had also run several 100s. (I’d made bacon brittle especially for him, as he is a notorious fan of bacon.) He hadn’t slept well last night in his tent — it had been incredibly windy — looked a wee bit grumpy and had earbuds in, so I said he could tune me out and do his thing, but we talked about work and running.

Made it to the top and began a nice long descent on gravel road. I caught back up with Bethany W., whose husband, Clifton, also a young, very fast runner who was hoping to improve upon his 6:45 time from last year, was inching up behind her. We talked until we arrived at Sunset Fields (~12 miles, mile 78.4 on the Blue Ridge Parkway). We made it around 8 am, more than an hour to the cut off. I stopped to eat a square of PB&J, more oranges (last night’s pizza was tasty, but salty, plus I knew I was a bit dehydrated from two beers), and topped off my water bottles again.

Leaving Sunset Fields is a technical, rocky descent and I honestly felt fresh, like I had just parked my car in the parking lot and started my run. It didn’t feel like I’d already run almost a half marathon. That said, I had to let several runners pass me. I *really* need to improve on the technical descents. Even worse is the return trip back UP and I hoped that I would have *something* left in the tank when we came back to Sunset Fields later in the day.

This was another section I’d trained on several times and kept shuffling on the uphills, leapfrogging with runners who were alternating between running and walking. Ran with Mike S., who I *kinda* chicked at both Holiday Lake and Terrapin this year. Mike S. is one of those crazy, super fit, cross-fitters who is such good shape that he doesn’t have to log many weekly miles to do as well as he does. (Maybe he’s injured, which could explain why I’ve managed to finish just slightly before him at the last two races.) Also ran with Dan A. — running PL as a last long run before MMT 100 — for awhile, another faster guy who I never see mid-race, who remarked that we were on a 6:30 pace, which I found unbelievable.

(I didn’t allow myself to think about my time. I knew that in order to finish in eight hours, I’d have to be done by 1:30 PM, so anything better than that would be gravy, but mostly ignored my watch and was always pleasantly surprised by the mileage — though a bit wary because of how far off it had been at Bull Run — when I did look at my wrist.)

Let a few people pass me on another technical downhill section — and I admired how ruthlessly they bombed down the rocks and roots — and then ran smoothly when the trail flattened out parallel to the water. Splashed through the first stream crossing without incident, ran a bit more, then at the second stream crossing, I momentarily debated climbing over several boulders to avoid getting wet. I decided, f*** it. The tall gentleman in front of me waded through the water, which hit him mid-calf. I followed his lead, or so I thought, because I lost my footing and fell in *completely*.

It was rather cold and my entire body froze/cramped up, so I stayed submerged a few beats longer than I meant to, but finally crawled out, equally gasping and laughing at myself. (Annnnnnd I’m pretty sure the people behind me were laughing, too.) I took off my soaking wet tank top and tried to wring out some of the water, but couldn’t — both hands had bottles strapped to them and I didn’t want to stop.

Ah well, I wasn’t far from the Cornelius Creek Trail aid station (~16.09 miles). There I ditched my shirt — Horton sarcastically suggested that I get *more* tattoos — and scarfed down two orange slices, a PB&J square, and some ginger ale. Started to trot down the flat gravel road and remembered to keep up with my SaltStick caps, which were, thankfully, still dry in the plastic baggie. Horton drove by again — and I noted that I *must* be moving well since I’d never seen him working at an aid station or in a second drive by — and I was secretly pleased that I was shuffling along instead of being caught walking.

After a mile on the gravel road, then on pavement, we got back on the trail. I realized I was behind Hope N., a Liberty student who had blossomed into a fantastic and very fast trail runner. (We first met last year at a Holiday Lake training run. It would be her longest distance run on the trails to date and the poor dear did not bring any water or food. Horton had dropped aid at the half way point, but 8 miles without anything to drink or eat was a long stretch. I ran with Hope, and happily played trail momma, making her drink from my pack and eat energy bars while we talked about college life and our families.) We ran together for a bit to AS #5, Colon Hollow (~19.26 miles), which always offers popsicles (and last year, whiskey!).

This next section was hopelessly boring, just a constant upness on a wide grassy road, and Mike S. and I commiserated about how much we disliked this stretch. When I peeked at my watch and saw we were twenty miles in, I took inventory of how I was feeling. I was *very* pleased to feel good — not tired, not sore, no belly aches. Quite a few folks were trudging uphill and I decided I would continue my shuffle and left Hope and Mike S.

We runners were now pretty spread out, so these were quiet miles — not a bad thing at all — and I took the chance to say some Hail Marys, pray for different people in my life, and thank God for creating such a beautiful world in which I had free will to live. My reverie was interrupted by a succession of runners, running faster than me. I moved aside and was surprised to see Mike H. and Jarrett T. , whom I’d first met at last year’s Grindstone training weekend. Mike was equally surprised — and I wasn’t offended — and remarked that I must be having a good day. Yep, indeed.

Kept trotting away and suddenly took a slide in a muddy patch and broke the fall using my hands, but rendered the left handheld undrinkable because it was covered in gritty mud. Blechhhh! Finally the climbing was done and I enjoyed the downhill trail — with some good, splashy mud puddles — to Cornelius Creek (23.89 miles, according to Horton, but closer to 25 or 26).

It was a quick out and back to the AS where a wonderful volunteer helped get the dirty bottle cleaned off. Took a PB & J sandwich square to go and set off for the absolute WORST and most BEAUTIFUL part of PL … Apple Orchard Falls!!! Every year, the trail leading up to the stunning waterfall has been a complete death march. I made a mention to several people over the day that I hoped to someday have enough life to do something other than a pitiful crawl. Maybe I’d planted the seed and *this* would be the year that I could keep a decent pace. I tried to bury negative thoughts in my head about tired and slow the last run with Jennifer P. had gone and that this was the hardest and most awful section and kept moving along.

I came up behind a guy who wearing knee high Ragnar socks, which I admired aloud. He was from Colorado, visiting friends in the Lynchburg area who had persuaded him and his wife to do this race. We talked for a short while and I passed him. Then I was behind another gentleman who had tweaked his calf earlier in the week running in Seattle and emailed Horton to drop out, but then decided to run it at the very last minute. He had only slept 45 minutes the night before, which he figured was good training for MMT 100. Turns out that we knew each other — we are FB friends with lots of mutual running pals, but had not met in real life — and Dave W. let me lead the way up to the falls.

Once past the falls, his calf was bothering him again, so I went on without him. I counted the cruel, cruel wooden stairs — each step was about an inch too high, so you really have to pick up your legs — but lost count when a runner in front of me remarked that it was ironic that he was wearing his shirt from Dipsea. [The Dipsea Race is the oldest trail race in the United States. It’s “only” 7.5 miles long and best known for the 688 stairs you have to climb up Mount Tamalpais, before passing though Muir Woods National Monument and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.]

I recognized the last set of stairs and was very, super, extra happy. Dipsea asked if it was possible to finish in seven hours and I said it was — with six miles to go and so long as he bombed the downhills. The final climb was up to Sunset Fields. It was, in reality, only about a mile, but always *feels* like eight-hundred-and-seven miles because there’s another switchback and then another and another … (Okay, I exaggerate.) NOW I was feeling *it* and everyone (all guys) in front of me was silent, just marching.

I’d noticed that my overall pace had been creeping up from the 12 minute range to 13. If I really wanted to finish around seven hours — still a surreal notion — and I decided to pick it up a bit, which in think irritated the runners that I passed. From behind, someone called out, “Girl, there’s no running up this hill!” It was Todd T., who was doing a DOUBLE Promise Land. That’s right. When all of us were hitting the hay, this mental patient set out to run the entire course solo … in the dark. (I didn’t know it at the time, but he finished just before the 5:30 am start, rested for a bit, and began his second go with everyone.)  Todd’s wife, Alexis, is also a tremendously talented runner, always in the top 3, and I asked if he knew how her day had gone. He said he hadn’t heard and away he went. Unbelievable that he’d already been on his feet for ~7 hours and was gonna finish his second loop before all of us.

Finally-finally-FINALLY made it back to Sunset Fields (~26.68 miles, according to Horton, but more like ~28 or 29), the final aid station for the day. Though it was only five miles to the finish, I asked the volunteer to fill my handhelds, just in case. It was getting pretty hot and I was only wearing a sports bra and shorts. I had just eaten a Salted Caramel GU with caffeine — hoping the caffeine would give me a final boost to the finish — so I didn’t grab anything to eat. As I took off across the parkway, I overheard one of the runners that I had passed say to a volunteer, “that chick is on steroids!” Ha!

OKAY! Less than a 10k to go … a little climb and then all downhill. I was tickled pink by the idea of being done much earlier in the day than I had planned, but that thought wasn’t enough to kick my arse into high gear to finish. More than anything, I could feel that I was getting tired; my handhelds felt so heavy and the urge to walk — on relatively flat terrain!!! — was strong. I let myself trudge up the final hill and tried to run downhill on the single track trail as efficiently as possible.

But as hard as I tried to get into a cadence, I couldn’t. My toes were feeling squished inside my shoes. I never had that sensation at Bull Run, probably because there were no extended downhills and my only hesitation about wearing the Olympus was how they’d feel on runnable descents. My big toes in particular were not happy (the left one had exited stage left a week ago and the right one was hanging on for dear life in a lovely shade of navy blue), and I knew I was nowhere close to slaughtering the downhills like I typically can do.

I must have slowed down considerably because once the trail let out onto the gravel road — only 2.7 miles left! — I got passed by at least three male runners. (I was only slightly irritated with myself, but would probably have been — uncharacteristically so — hellbent on a seek and destroy mission if it had been a female who blew past me.) My last run with Jamie M. was up and down this section and I thought about how quickly and effortlessly I ran down the road then. Why couldn’t I do that now?!?#^?

I looked at my watch. There was no way I could finish under seven hours unless I could run, *really* run, and no sir, that was not happening. But seven hours and change was still doable and not too shabby, so I hobbled along. It was with great joy that I saw the ONE MILE TO GO message on the ground. It was now flat and just pavement and it was much, much easier to run now.

As I approached the Promise Land Youth Camp, Jordan C., a Tech alum who is now a physical therapist, who had also just run and PRed at the Boston Marathon on Monday, called out my name. (He finished 15th overall at PL.) My heart started to pound and I turned on to the grassy field where the cookout had already begun and throngs of people were spread out, laughter and chatter in the air.

A voice called out, “Don’t let him catch you! Go!” — apparently, there was a runner on my tail! — and I sprinted to the finish into Horton’s arms for a giant bear hug — the very best prize of all.

I didn’t know what my actual time was until later on. I didn’t care. I knew I had run really well and I was so happy.

Perhaps this back-of-the-pack runner is graduating to the middle of the pack. 🙂

The rest of the day was spent lounging on the grassy field with friends, enjoying the sun while noshing (okay, stuffing ourselves, really) on food, drinking beer, talking about how our races had played out (some better than others), and cheering as people finished. It was especially joyful to see both Dru S. — an amazing runner who turned 62 yesterday — and Gary K. — who is such a bad ass that you’d *never* guess is seventy years young, ran Bull Run 50 two weeks ago, and will toe the line at MMT 100 in three weeks — complete their 10th Promise Land.

Soooo much inspiration, soooooo much love and soooo much support all around. I really can’t put into words how happy I was, how full my heart felt, and how grateful and blessed I felt to be alive, having and sharing this wonderful experience with so many fellow crazies.

Alas, all good things must come to an end and the spring race season is all but over. The next race in the Beast series is Grindstone 100 in October, so training for my goal race of 2014 begins after the Pittsburgh Half Marathon this weekend and 40 miles of pacing at MMT 100 in May.

Happy Trails, everyone!

P.S. Two final and somewhat random thoughts …

  1. I did not stop for a bio break once in the 7 hours, which was a bit unusual. During training runs, I’ll stop and tinkle whenever I need to. I thought about it several times during the day, but couldn’t find a location with enough cover, so figured I would wait. It wasn’t until after an hour after I was done, I had realized that I still hadn’t gone to the bathroom. Thankfully, my urine was not dark brown when I finally did pee, after the race.
  2. I didn’t seek out any salty food at aid stations. I never attack cookies or candy, my go-to is usually Pringles or pretzels. I suppose the SaltStick caps satisfied my sodium needs and I only ate fruit and sandwich squares, in addition to the GUs that I carried.

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6 thoughts on “2014 Promise Land 50k++ Race Report

    • [Whoa. My first comment! Okay, now, I’m embarrassed that people have read my drivel.] Thanks, Martha! I’m not sure what the difference is between having a string of good races and learning *how* to run a race, but I’ll take it.

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