Absolutely the best race that $25 can buy.
Damascus, a small town in southwestern Virginia, has been the host of the Iron Mountain 50 Miler for several years now. As trail running has become more popular, the event grows, and the level of racing becomes progressively more competitive. The event’s popularity isn’t likely to stop anytime soon.
The 50 mile start is at 7:00 AM so you can actually sleep in compared to many ultramarathons that would start at 5:00 or 6:00. We stayed just 15 minutes away in Abingdon, VA and arrived just after 6:00. Damascus itself is filled with a ton of bed and breakfast establishments, which might be more appealing if you were staying more than one night. For me, the $89 Quality Inn was sufficient for 10 hours of use.
Parking was stress free right at the start/finish area for the 50 milers arriving early but I’m not sure if the 30 and 16 mile racers feel quite the same ease when that reaches max capacity. There is nearby overflow parking for entrants to use, regardless. Packet pickup goes off without a hitch. The shirts looked pretty cool though I didn’t buy one (because I’ve been informed via an unnamed source that I have about 30 too many).
With hurricane Harvey pushing moisture up the interior of the US, the chance of precipitation heading into Labor Day weekend was going to be high. So it wasn’t a surprise that it rained at the start of the race, then intermittently rained throughout the first half, and then progressed into a persistent heavy rain by the final two hours. Very reminiscent of the trail marathon I did a few weeks ago. I’m getting really good at ignoring rain. Historically, the race is more hot and humid.
We start the race exactly on time - a testament to the consistent management of the event for several years now. The cloud cover makes it darker than typical for this time. The start for all distances is a five-mile stretch of crushed gravel rail trail known as the Virginia Creeper Trail. Damascus is a unique intersection of the Iron Mountain Trail, Creeper Trail, and Appalachian Trail. The Iron Mountain Trail was a part of the AT until the AT was relocated in the 1970’s.
Pretty quickly I felt like I was running too fast, my heart rate already in zone 5. Ummm….just 49 miles to go people. Can we at least keep it over 8:00/mile? I’d seen the prior results of my fellow competitors and had no intentions of vying for a win on this day as I watched three guys gradually drift away.
A couple more runners passed me as I tried to slow slightly and get my heart rate into zone 4. I struck up a conversation with a runner from NC who told me she was moving fast while she could. Long climbs and technical sections apparently weren’t her strong suit. If I recall correctly, she said she had competed there a total of seven times among the various distances. The conversation helped those early miles pass more quickly, but that section will still occupy your mind with its rhododendron and numerous bridge crossings over Laurel Creek or Whitetop Laurel Creek.
Leaving the rail trail and entering the real trails, I started the first climb in 7th place overall. I couldn’t believe how dark it seemed. The trees and undergrowth were so thick that a headlamp would have been useful for a couple hundred yards. That climb is particularly steep, but often wide, and occasionally rocky singletrack in its first mile. The course continues to ascend on more packed and smooth singletrack trails until close to mile 7. Then there’s still plenty of climbing to be had all the way to mile 20.
My left foot had been nagging me a little during the past week, so I broke down and dry needled it the day prior. I felt it kick in a couple times from mile 9-13, while traversing the ridgeline along the Iron Mountain Trail. The pain just intense enough and lengthy enough to scare me. Fortunately, it ended up stopping. I’m not sure it would have stopped had I not sucked it up and done the dry needling.
After the 16 mile aid station, the 50-mile course crosses Whitetop Road and becomes gravel road that eventually gives way to grassy forest service road. Good. I particularly love running gravel road. Despite another four miles of climbing, this six-mile section goes by fast, partly because it also contains a quick, mountainous descent surrounded by a bit of fog as it tops our second highest point. I caught one runner on the descent, almost too easily, which makes me think I need to slow down. I was actually having more fun following him because it made me feel like I was moving faster.
A long gravel descent on Hurricane Road follows the aid station at mile 22 but I am finally met again with true trails a couple miles later that force a little more climbing out of my legs. Around mile 25 you should return to gravel road but I mistakenly crossed that road and followed a trail that was not on the course for just a couple hundred yards. I suspected that it was incorrect whenever the trail narrowed and I acquired several spider webs on my face. I would not have been the first person to come through if this was the course.
After coming back up the hill to the intersection where I lost the course, I am greeted by a long descent with tons of switchbacks. There are a few rollers but it finally arrives to an aid station at mile 29 where they tell me the climbing begins. Three miles to the next aid station, the volunteers say as they are refilling my hydration pack. By this point I’m annoyed with both gravel roads and descending and say, “Good, I’m tired of going downhill” in between mouthfuls of pizza. They confirm that I’m in fourth place. Not bad. Maybe number three will crack a bit?
Well, after 2.5 miles of that climb to the next aid station, I was the one starting to crack, struggling on the upper half-mile because it’s stinking steep. Everything looks and feels steeper when you are tired at mile 31. Additionally, that section of trail is used by horses and has more mud, ruts, and poo than the rest of the course.
Eventually, painfully, stubbornly I reach that next aid station at Hurricane Gap. This is the same aid station as mile 22 and completes this lollipop loop of the course for mile 32. Beef jerky looks to be the most appealing item. The climb had left me pretty drained. Leaving there I thought that I’d completed the main climb. Boy, that was COMPLETELY wrong. I guess the previous volunteers said three miles to the aid, not to the top of the climb.
I pop out onto a gravel road that seemed to climb for the next half hour. I was beyond halfway up but couldn’t seem to regain the running legs. Unfortunately, I’m not sure of the exact time spent continuing the climb because my GPS data was all jacked up after the fact, but I do know there were a whole heck of a lot of switchback turns up the rest of that mountainside, each one resembling the one prior. My love of gravel roads left a few miles ago. It was the mental low point of the day. I had to count steps or pick targets in order to run even brief periods.
Finally! I summit the highest point of the course around 4200 feet and drop back onto the Iron Mountain Trail from the gravel. At this point the rain is heavier and I’m becoming cold but at least I can run at a decent clip on the singletrack. I start to put on my jacket but just as I’m ready to slip into the sleeve, the jacket is mysteriously ripped from my hands and disappears behind me as it’s grabbed by the surrounding thorny brush. My coordination is apparently declining.
I’ve never been so happy to get back onto singletrack, which tends to be the emphasis until you get back to Damascus. The major climbing was over. Just 15 miles or so to go. Now, the wet weather was adding a whole extra element of challenge as parts of the trail gradually became a streambed. But it was awesome. The ridge was already surrounded by fog and most areas remained very runnable. It is at this point that I seem to become robotic and is the point of running that I find to be a little addictive. I’ve entered “the zone.” Sure, the legs are a little uncomfortable but the descending on a rhododendron covered, tunnel-like trail feels like that warp speed they use in Star Wars as the periphery becomes a blur.
The next aid station is mile 37, Skulls Gap. I never did get to ask anyone about that peculiar and creepy name. In my haze I asked the volunteers if this was mile 38. A volunteer says “No, 37.” I said, “It’s okay if you just lie to me at this point.” The volunteer says something like, “In that case, you have 7 miles to the next aid.” Hey.... wait a minute! That’s not fair. My brain doesn’t work.
My wife surprised me at the mile 43 aid station, which was also mile 9. The volunteers tell her after I leave that they were worried about me because I apparently looked a little disoriented. What is orientation, really? There’s up, down, left, right. Good enough. But really I just wanted to be running again. It’s not weather I like to stand around in and I just wanted to finish up. At that point you’ve already proven to yourself that the major task could be done so let’s just hammer it home.
Around mile 46 the course splits back apart, so it was “new to me” trail once more. Here, I am running on motivation more than calories. My ignorance led me to believe it’s pure descending to the finish but actually I’ve encountered a challenging climb of maybe two-thirds of a mile. I surprised myself and ran nearly all of it. This is not the time to lose a placing because it would be a huge ego killer. It’s not looking good for seeing third place but I am catching a lot more 30-miler folks who were always encouraging me onward.
The final descent begins. It’s rumored to be unliked and technical. It actually wasn’t as technical as I was picturing but I did manage to briefly roll my left ankle once on those loose rocks. That portion went on forever, became quite dark, and then suddenly spit me out onto a paved street in Damascus. Gotta be close now though I don’t know where I specifically have to go.
This last section is the only real paved road running in the entire circuit. Arriving at the next main road intersection I had to stop to wait on vehicle traffic. My legs were so weird and wobbly at that point that I began to lose my balance, having to take a big step to the right in order to not fall down. Whoopsie. Good thing I don’t need need to pass a sobriety test.
Back onto the Creeper Trail, over a final bridge, and there’s the finish line at Damascus Town Park. I actually had enough energy to kick hard and felt good. Though I had wanted to come in under eight hours, I’ll take the 8:05:58 without complaint. I know where I lost the time and perhaps I’ll get another jab at this race one day.
I’m positive there were burgers and hotdogs and other snacks awaiting my arrival but my memory was a smidge fuzzy right then. I do know I ate something. And my wife was kind enough to find my favorite recovery drink at the local grocery: chocolate milk. Every finisher received a nice package of freshly baked cookies.
Such a great, adventurous course and memorable day! Thanks to everyone volunteering many hours of their time to help us challenge ourselves!
Big ol’ nutrition list:
- 4 Gu gels
- 1 Carb-Boom gel
- 3 bananas
- 2 Oreo cookies
- 3 vanilla wafer cookies
- 1 mini Snickers bar
- 6 Clif Shot Bloks chews
- 8 oz. Coca-Cola
- 16 oz. ginger ale
- 2 small handfuls gummy bears
- 2 small handfuls M & M’s
- 2 small handfuls beef jerky
- 2 oz. pickle juice
- 4 dill pickle spears
- 2 small cooked potatoes
- ½ peanut butter and jelly sandwich
- 1½ large handfuls of grapes
- ½ slice of cheese pizza