By chance, this year's race fell squarely on the first official day of winter. You wouldn't know it from the conditions though. Another lesson in the folly of consulting extended weather forecasts before race day: what had been projected as a cold pelting rain 10 days out had by 5 days prior fizzled to a warmish drizzle, then, with a day to go, had morphed into a prediction of mostly clear skies and Florida-like warmth.
The sensation of having traveled south was enhanced by hanging Spanish moss, glimpses of open water, sand, and the odd subtropical plant. By the time most of us finished, the temperature was into the low 70s. After a mostly cold December, that felt downright sultry.
Flat, fast--and rooty
The course begins, hits halfway, and ends in an area known as the Narrows, a strip of water connecting Linkhorn Bay with Broad Bay (and, according to legend, where Blackbeard hid out for a time). There are two loops, mostly on trails, with some very short sections on asphalt. As advertised, the course is flat, fast and nontechnical.
Still, this is a trail race, and "flat" is relative. While there are none of the embedded rocks that are ubiquitous in the trails of the nearby Blue Ridge and Piedmont areas, and no steep climbs or quad-jarring descents, there are plenty of humps and ditches, areas of uneven footing, and a great many roots. There's enough variety that runners need to keep their eyes open and feet nimble.
Narrows to Cape Henry
The first loop (and only the first loop) begins with a short out and back on the road, presumably added to bring the total up to a full 50 kilometers. This 1.5 mile section is a good place to warm up, lay down your rhythm, go over your plan one more time, and remind yourself that 50k is still a long way to suffer if you go out too quickly.
Turning on to Cape Henry Trail after the short out-and-back asphalt section, you skirt the edge of Linkhorn Bay for a bit, following an attractive single-track with lots of hanging moss and occasional glimpses of quiet little bayside beaches.
Saltmarsh to "Desert"
Fairly soon, you hit a wooden bridge and boardwalk and cross into the salmarsh area. This is a good time to look for an osprey--or at least an osprey's nest, sitting atop one of the scattered trees that poke out of the marsh.
After crossing Route 64 again, the Cape Henry trail takes you through the heart of the park, a higher area the early 17th-century English settlers used to refer to as the "desert," presumably because of its sandy, untillable soil. This section of the trail is broad, a thoroughfare for bikes as well as walkers. It is fast, with a surface of mostly hard-packed sand with few roots or ruts.
Bald Cypress and Osmanthus
The speedway continues for a mile or so. Then you bounce around a bit between Cape Henry and two other connector trails, White Hill Lake and King Fisher, before entering into the Bald Cypress/Osmanthus Loop.
Another blogger has referred to the "dreaded" Bald Cypress loop, but for me, this was the marquis section of the race. Just as it sounds, Bald Cypress features lots of large, gnarled and knobby trees. They are rooted in standing water, dyed glassy and black as mica by tannins.
"Osmanthus" is named after the wild olive tree or "devilwood," which reaches the northernmost point in its distribution in this very park. In a daydreamy moment, I thought about this as a sort of botanical reverse solstice. Just as the sun had reached the southernmost point in its celestial race, the osmanthus here reaches its northernmost outpost.
A more frequent mental distraction, however, were the persistent Christmas carols I couldn't get out of my head.
Ah, the things you just never think to train for. I must have spent an hour or so trying to expunge "Jingle Bells" from the mental soundtrack. It was the sort of metastasizing earworm that keeps ratcheting up the performance to ludicrous heights: orchestral swells, a chorus of hundreds, cymbals crashing. I'd just get it out of my head, then would hear some bells again. Bells were a bit of a running theme in this race. Bells on signposts. Bells on the hat of a little girl in the group of spectactors. A young woman running the race decked out in a costume festooned with tinkling bells. Bells, bells, bells, as the poet said.
A well-organized race with lots of heart
The course has two main aid stations, each of which you pass several times, on the way out and back and on both of the loops. Volunteers are warm, enthusiastic, and helpful. While there are a few intersections and trail changes to negotiate, all are extremely well marked, and every trail is festooned with plenty of "confidence" streamers. Those who get lost on this course have only themselves to blame.
As a whole, the race manages to combine excellent organization and a low-key, welcoming spirit. I'd recommend this to anyone looking to complete a first ultra. That seems to be the intention of the sign placed just past the 26.2 mile marker that reads "You are now an ultramarathoner!" I'm a great fan of these little inspirational messages on ultra courses, and this one is a nice touch.
The finisher "medal," a small wooden plaque, is another nice touch--distinctive, and appropriately nature-ish.
Stuff for runners: Performance and Lessons Learned
I finished in 9th place out of the 263 finishers, in 4:15. That's faster than I've done in a trail 50k before (although admittedly the ones I've run, Promise Land and Catoctin, aren't "normal" 50ks). It was a bit of a surprise, too, after the last few weeks of work stress, holiday overindulgence, uninspired training, and an aggravating commute out of DC the night before.
For the first time in my experience (the last?), almost everything falls into the category of "what worked":
- Using a heartrate monitor to cultivate "mindfulness." While I've worn a heartrate monitor in ultras before, I've never used one quite like this. I wasn't so much monitoring physiology as creating a fixed mental "anchor" to focus the mind, and to track all those little moments when the mind inevitably strays. For pretty much the whole race, I was acutely aware of those moments: admiring botanical wonders, humming holiday tunes. But each time I was able to bring my attention back to the number: a steady 150 bpm or lower (about 85% of my maximum). In the first half, the challenge was to stay below 150; towards the end of the race, to pull things up from the mid 140s when I began to slow.
- Rapid cadence. This is always something I've practiced in trail running. But now I went still more rapid, faster than the supposedly "ideal" cadence--ideal in terms of biomechanical efficiency--of 180 steps for minute. I have theory that resilience is not the same as efficiency. For a marathon or below, yes, you want maximum efficiency. But in the ultra, it may be worthwhile to trade off some absolute efficiency for resiliency--the ability to stay springy after many hours of running. That probably sounds a bit odd, but hey, we're all an "experiment of one" and have the freedom to try out whatever daffy idea we like.
- Steady nutrition: I consumed 600 calories of Tailwind, all of it in one concentrated 16 oz bottle carried in the front of the my vest (the ridiculously light Tony Krupicka version of the Ultimate Direction hydration pack). At one aid stop early in the race, I ate a handful of nuts, to quiet the hunger grumbles and on the theory that a little fat might slow and even out the absorption of calories. My stomach remained untroubled, happy the whole race--not something it typically does in warmer temperature.
- Hydration: I probably drink less than some people. Formulas for hydration, I believe, are misleading. Trial and error, sometimes painful error, has been unavoidable in my experience. I consume by "instinct," which for me is a combination of feeling thirsty and making guesses, based on experience, about where I am in the race and how I'm responding to conditions.
- Electrolytes: I know the science on this is inconclusive, but I have learned (again, the hard way) that steady supplementation of water with electrolytes is a necessity for this running body. Although the Tailwind I was consuming comes with the electrolytes built in, given the conditions, I supplemented with a tab an hour of Saltstick. This appeared to work perfectly, although I still found post-race that I craved salty things for a day or so.
- The Inova 245 Trailrocs. Racing in these was a bit of a revelation, actually. All year I've been wearing Hokas at my races, and while I love the extra cushion on the downhills, there's something not right about how they affect my running. I can't put my finger on it, but I think with every shoe there are trade offs, and the hyper-cushioned Hokas diminish the flexibility and proprioception (sense of the body in its environment) that are needed to make the constant little adjustments to form that allow us to cultivate resilience over the long run. To put that in motto form: your feet are smarter than you are.
The list of "what didn't work" is mercifully short. File them under "well, duh":
- The night before the race, on the Friday before Christmas, driving south out of the DC area. You will arrive completely frazzled and mostly drained of good will towards all.
- Trying to avoid chafing from the heartrate strap by slathering it in vaseline. It will slip down-- repeatedly.