For the second time in as many weeks, Brent and I traveled south of the Mason-Dixon Line, this time to tackle the burly mountains of Virginia in the Bel Monte Endurance Run.
Along with Bess
and her friend Celia – fresh off a plane from Scotland – we arrived in Charlottesville at 9:30 PM on Friday night, and awoke seven hours later for the 45-minute drive to the Sherando Lake Recreation Site, in Shenandoah’s George Washington National Forest. Bess and I had plans to tackle the 50k together – the first ultra for each of us – and at the last minute, Brent decided to sign up for the 25k.
The ride took longer than we’d anticipated, and we rushed to ready ourselves before the 6:30 AM start. With moments to go, we huddled together in sub-freezing temperatures, and then, after a few words of wisdom from the race director, we were off and running.
Well, sort of.
The first 2.4 miles of the course took all racers along a narrow stretch of single-track trail, liberally peppered with swelling creek crossings. With hundreds of runners trying hard to avoid early wet feet, a backlog was impossible to avoid. Brent positioned himself at the front and was able to take off running, but Bess and I planted ourselves firmly in the middle of the pack, and ended up slowly meandering through this first section at 18 minutes per mile.
Still, as the sun rose over Shenandoah and the temperatures began to climb, it was impossible not to smile as I took to the trails. I was warming up and feeling strong, and I couldn’t wait to see what the day would bring.
The trails widened briefly around mile 3 before beginning a steep 5-mile ascent to the peak of the mountain range. The trails were technical and I watched my footing carefully as I plodded along, chatting with other runners and taking in the scenery.
About a mile from the top, as I was running with a seasoned ultra marathoner and her equally seasoned dog, Brent came back down the trail on the return leg of the 25k out-and-back. “Do you have any advil?” he yelled as he approached. I had nothing to offer him, but the woman and her dog paused and pulled out a few pills as he explained that he’d been on pace for a podium finish before a nasty ankle sprain had taken him down. He’d decided to push forward, but was clearly struggling. We parted ways as he ran gingerly back down the mountain to a 12th place overall finish and an age-group win. (Read more about his experience here
Bess and I made it to the first aid station and paused briefly for a few gummy bears before continuing along a gentle stretch of wide trail that took us down the mountain for a short stint on the road. I couldn’t stop smiling as I ran on, talking to the racers around me. Michelle Roy, who lived in the same town where Brent went to high school, was in training for Western States. She regaled me with stories of repeats up Mount Monadnock, and I learned that she used to crew for Wicked Pissah, a Boston-area adventure racing team. Christine Bone, who competed with Team Enduring Freedom in Primal Quests Montana and South Dakota, was using Bel Monte as training in hopes of eventually qualifying for Badwater. It was hard not to be inspired, hearing about all of their adventures on the trails.
Christine was signed up to run the 50 miler, but she was contemplating dropping down to the 50k. She echoed the sentiments of almost everyone I spoke to throughout the day: the Bel Monte race was one of the hardest ultra courses out there, with rock-littered trails and steep, steep climbs. It was a rough race for everyone, I was told, especially for beginners.
Still, I felt great throughout the day. Mentally, I was engaged and excited. Aside from a near-bonk around mile 17 when I made the rookie mistake of trying to hold out on fuel until I hit the next aid station, I had few dips in energy and no real dips in spirit. And physically, I felt strong and steady. I ran well when I could, and walked fast on the steep and technical terrain. And other than the two ankles biters that tripped me up within one half-mile stretch, my body held up remarkably well, even as I climbed the two miles of switchbacks to reach the top of the mountain for the second time at mile 23.
At mile 28, we came down the last technical descent to find Brent and Celia waiting at the trail head. After all that they had heard about the course, they were surprised to see me still smiling and energized. I raced over to Brent with a grin. “I wish I’d done the 50 miler,” I told him excitedly. “I can’t wait to do this again!”
There were three miles left, a combination of flat road and rolling trail, and Bess and I kept pace as we cheered each other on to the finish. We ran across the line hand-in-hand, and as the volunteers placed our medals around our necks and Brent and Celia snapped pictures, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the next race.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of this ultra-running world. But even with the inconsistent training and starting on one of the toughest 50k courses around, I had a spectacular day that left me chomping at the bit for more.
Stay tuned for pictures…