Saturday’s Old Dominion 100 provided us runners a rewarding opportunity to do what we love most- to run all day under a clear blue sky, in the mountains, the only sounds coming from whistling birds, bubbling streams and the crushing of earth and gravel beneath the steps of our own feet. Rural Fort Valley’s curvy single lane roads, gravel fire roads and rocky single track trails crossing up and over the surrounding Massanutten Mountains set the scene for the race. Fort Valley is about as good of a location as one can hope for in terms of a location for a mountainous cross country 100 mile endurance run.
|The setting. All photos courtesy of Bobby Gill.
The early hours of the race developed as I anticipated as several runners jockeyed for position, demonstrating their running skill sets over the varying terrain. Road speed. Climbing speed. Descending speed. Form. Technical trail handling. Mastering of the aid station (that would be me). The impossible skill of seemingly never having to make a pit stop (that would not be). Etc. Each runner has their own strengths and weaknesses and during the early stages of a 100 mile race, when several runners are often still grouped and running together, they’re all brought to light. In fact, I find during the early stages of such a race is the perfect time to size up one’s competition. What are their weaknesses? What are their strengths? How can I make them suffer? How might they make me suffer? I don’t think about this stuff too much but I probably should.
Darkness slowly turned to daylight and I found myself running quite a bit with Jon Loewus-Deitch and Ron Shriver. We cruised several miles in the early morning together chatting over various topics, none of which really had to do with the race at hand. Gravel roads turned to trail, back to gravel road, then to paved road and finally we arrived together at aid station 770/758, mile 19.6, at 6:45am. I was in an out of the aid station in a flash and turned around to see Eric Grossman, Jon Allen, Sean Andrish, Karsten Brown and Jeremy Pade coming through. Moments behind them were Keith Knipling, Patrick McGlade and a few others. At this point only David Ploskonka was out front but always within eyesight. Eric and I eventually pulled ahead of the others and ran steadily a few dozen yards behind David. Not long after we caught David the three of us ran together, loosely, a quarter of the way into our 100 mile foot journey, still feeling strong as the morning sun emerged fully over the eastern mountain horizon. Our path was a gravel road, bouncing over the rolling landscape, the high arches visible into the distance, the lows invisible between the folds of the hills. We paralleled white picket fences, farm houses, barns, crop fields. Cows stood by, chewing grass, staring quizzically. A few dogs greeted us, running in lock step, barking in cheer. The Massanutten Mountains cradled our path on either side, to the east and west. Everything felt as it should be; at peace. I realized then and there these would be my favorite moments of the day. It felt like the perfect time for a prayer. Internally, I gave thanks. Outwardly, I searched for words to describe the simple beauty enveloping us as we ran. “Bucolic,” Eric turned and uttered. I nodded. We ran on.
|Best part of the day. Me, Eric and David.
Pretty soon Eric and I dropped David on a hill and motored on towards Four Points #1 aid station, mile 32.5. As Eric answered the call of nature, I hustled in and out Four Points #1 and climbed the trail past Camp Roosevelt. It took more than a few moments to find my trail legs after the several preceding miles of uninterrupted rolling pavement. It was on this short climb that I put a gap on Eric and would begin the rest of the day’s journey on my own. I stopped only twice between Four Points #1 and Crimson Hollow Aid Station, mile 43: once to answer my own call from nature and another to fill my bottle from a spring located conveniently by the trail. The aid station at mile 39, Peach Orchard, ie a guy on a dirt bike, had yet to materialize. The climb ahead was long, dry and exposed to the sun. Fortunately, I was good with water thanks to the spring. I continued running hard all the way back to Four Points #2, mile 47.7, periodically looking over my shoulder for Eric. For David. For anyone. I saw no one. I hustled in and out of Four Points #2, but not before gulping my first of several ice cold, thirst quenching, electrolyte boosting coconut waters, thanks go Gaby and my sister Margaret’s dutiful crewing. Does anything else taste better at an aid station after running hard in the heat for several hours, by the way? I mean, really.
The orange spray painted “50” mile marker came at 11:18am, 7:18 into the run. I felt good and ran the entire way up and over Mountain Top and down to Edinburg Gap aid station, mile 56.5, attempting to put whatever distance I could on Eric. Gaby said Eric was eight minutes back at Four Points #2. A reasonable gap, considering the climb up Peach Orchard, I figured but I also figured it wasn’t near good enough since the day remained long. The path to Peter’s Mill and Little Fort aid stations began to weigh on me slightly. There were steep climbs and technical descents. The heat of the day was in force and as a result I found myself a bit slowed. At Little Fort, mile 64.25, I was about 12 to 15 minutes ahead of my goal pace. I picked up a second bottle from Gaby and ran the entire way to Mudhole Gap aid station, mile 69.48, save for only a little power hiking on a few brief sections of climbs, and gained a few additional minutes on my splits goal. The gravel road climb, leaving Mudhole Gap, up and over the pass was runnable; I took advantage. It was the following downhill section, leading into Elizabeth Furnace, which led to an unnecessary and unfortunate unhinging of my overall finish time, and attitude I’m not proud to admit. Some punk ass stole the course markings and I lost the trail for 25 minutes. Fortunately, along the road leading to Elizabeth Furnace a race staff member pointed me back in the proper direction. At this point it was evident an overall finishing time of 15:40-15:50 was no longer within reach. I was not happy.
|Running into Elizabeth Furnace after a few bonus leg tiring sub 7 min miles on rolling pavement.
At the Elizabeth Furnace aid station, mile 75, everyone was kind and encouraged me to put my anger from going off course out of my head and carry on with the race, especially since I was still in the lead because, as we learned later, Eric had gone off course, too, for the same reason. Thankfully, climbing the long, impossibly steep trail straight up Shermans Gap out of Elizabeth Furnace was just what I needed to clear my head. By the time I was up the climb and traversing the ridgeline I felt better. From there on to the finish I never actually knew where any following runners were in proximity to my location but generally felt secure, overall, in the lead. Not being one to write off a competitor, I often looked back for chasing runners from the far side of any long stretch in the trail. I continued passing through aid stations as quickly as possible and ran hard down the final descent from Woodstock Gap, mile 93. The punishing MMT gave my quads three weeks prior actually turned out to be a good thing at Old Dominion as they held up on the down hills all the way to the finish. I cruised back to race headquarters, Woodstock Fairgrounds, for a final loop around the horse track and an anti-climatic crossing of the tape (a tape that never actually broke, only stretched) for a first-place finish time of 16:16 and change. Not quite the time I had hoped for, or would have earned if not for the trail marker vandal(s), but still a 100 mile PR. A PR is a good thing. So is a first first-place finish. I’m happy.
Those who know me know I spoke of Old Dominion this spring with great anticipation. Simply, I had a feeling it would be a good race. Thankfully, the feeling proved correct. Many, many great runners showed up and pushed one another on to fast finish times. So many fast finish times in fact that the race directors ran out of silver buckles at the awards ceremony. MMT is a phenomenal event. I already plan to enter the lottery again for MMT for next May. I also am seriously considering returning again to Old Dominion next June. A three week recovery, in between these two events, is fine for me. Same with Keith, Jeremy, David P. and David Snipes, too, apparently. This year’s field at Old Dominion was special and I think the feeling was noticeable all weekend. I also think the trend could easily continue and spill over to 2012’s Old Dominion. The field could easily be way larger and way more competitive.
How? Why? For starters, Old Dominion offers a runners course over a mixed variety of terrain and elevation gain (14k feet) satisfying the pallets of all skill sets. The race is conveniently held in the early summer racing season, giving runners ample time to recover and race elsewhere later in June, July, August, etc. The start/finish is right off a main highway, Interstate 81, located 1/2 mile from nice hotel options (camping is also free and available right at the start) and 90 minutes from a major airport, Dulles. Pacers are not allowed. The hotels and race entry fee are cheap, there is no lottery and the race is very easy to crew or run solo. Not everyone can, wants to or can afford to run Western States, also held each June, of which the registration fee will likely (I wager) soon climb to a number beginning with- gulp- a “5”. (Ironman called. They want their registration fee back.)
So, it is early- way early- I realize, but I propose this to all east coast runners and everyone else who wants a new (or renewed) challenge next summer and wants to run the second oldest 100 miler in the United States: consider marking off the first Saturday in June, 2012, on your calendar and travelling to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley for the Old Dominion 100. You won’t be disappointed.
|Post awards ceremony. Me and Cornbread- aka my older brother Paul. His first 100. A happy feeling.