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Willis River 50k Jan 2014

A group of 12 of us participated in the Willis River 35 and 50K, near Farmville, VA.  Farmville, is roughly 2.5 hours from Roanoke, on the eastern side of  Lynchburg.  The race is a trail race in the Bear Creek State Park.

Friends that participated with me, are as follows:  Gina Gilbert, David Landes, Carla Cross, James Decker, Robert Drinkwater, Helen MacDermott, Sean Cooper, Dru Sexton, Josh Gilbert, Jon Robinson, Matt Prescott and Emily Morris.  Sara Martin had planned to race with us, but an injury kept her out.

This was an incredible adventure and experience.  I knew days ahead, that the forecast was calling for rain on race day.  I did not think much of it, as the temperature was supposed to be in the 50s.  I had recently ran a rainy, 39 degree trail half recently and fared well.

I got up at 3 am and met Gina, Josh and some others to caravan to the race.  We got there and realized that the ground was completely saturated with rain.  People were parking their car, upon arrival and getting stuck in the grassy field.  I was a little concerned with how to dress, as I knew more rain was coming and it seemed cold with no relief in sight.  I went with the MJ Rnuts series black base layer with a technical ss shirt on top of that (the 2012 CtC shirt).  I wore gloves and shorts.  I never got cold..what I wore was perfect.

8am start…we were off around 5 minutes after.

The race is a primitive, wooded trail  Most or all of the trails are not very worn down.  Some parts of the trail seem like you are just running through random woods.  You go 10 miles to an aid station on a road, then turn around to do the same 10 miles the other way.  That is the 35k race.  You then have a choice to go the opposite way and do 5 miles, then turn around and come back, for the 50K.  There are aid stations approximately every 5 miles.

The trail is very hard to follow!  You are following white hash marks, but you are also following white ribbons.  At times, there are white ribbons telling you to make a turn.  You can easily miss a turn, if you are looking ahead at other white hash marks and not looking for ribbons.  There is no shame in missing a turn on this race.

The trails were water filled and extremely muddy.  Your feet sank into the mud and water.  The trails were like creeks with running or standing water in them.  You had no choice but to run in the water.  It was a constant slop, slop, splash, slop..

The mud was so bad that my feet were constantly sliding off the mud and one foot would bang into the other leg.

It started getting dark about 2 miles in and started raining soon after.  The steady rain lasted the majority of the rest of the race.  Lightning and thunder happened, as well.

Where there are not normally creeks, there were creeks..everywhere.  These were big enough that you could not hardly jump over and had to step into the water.  There were some normal creeks that you had to cross.  There were big rivers that you had to cross.  On a normal day the creeks would be really low and the rivers not a big deal.  This day was not ordinary…everything was way up.  We had to cross several rivers that were very high with very strong current.  They were 10 yards or so wide..some may have been wider.  I heard reports of people getting swept by the river current and having to get helped out of the water.

Through all the conditions, I felt pretty good.  I never got cold like some of the others, even though I was drenched.  I tried to start slow, but still passed some friends the first few miles.  Carla Cross and I ran together for a small portion.  I saw her for the last time at the 10 mile aid station.  I lost track of Gina, David and Helen before the 10 mile mark.  I turned around at the 10 mile mark and kept expecting to see them behind me.  Several minutes later, I still had not seen them.  I was thinking “What the heck is going on?  Where are they?  Did I miss them?”.  Finally, 2 miles from the turn around I ran into them.  They were not sure where they were.  I advised that they had 2 miles to go, just to get to the 10 mile turn around.  They were pretty disgusted.  They had missed a turn and wasted a solid hour or so.  Helen and Sean decided to turn around at that point and take a DNF.  David and Gina completed the 35K, but did not finish in enough time to be able to finish the 50K.  I really hated that for David and Gina.  This was David’s first 50K and Gina had never went past the 35K on this race.  They both really wanted to finish the 50K, so it was disappointing to have the missed turn mess them up.  They were in a group and got detoured by someone else.  I noticed Dru didn’t look good at the 10 mile turnaround.  She ended up being cold (and recovering from a cold)..she dropped out.  Robert was running with her and made sure she was taken care of.

I was amazed by the conditions and my excitement about it all.  I kept feeling like I was in Navy Seal training.

Josh met me at mile 19 and ran the last mile with me to the 35k finish.  Everyone was beat down by the mud, rain, water, river crossings, cold, etc.

After I finished the 35K finish line at 4:09, Josh and the race director assumed and asked if I was done.  I said to let me think about it for a minute.  I asked them if Robert had stopped.  Josh had already said that Decker stopped at the 35K.  He said Matt Prescott wanted to stop, but the director told him he had a good chance to win the 50k, if he went on.  John Robinson went on for the 50k, but was having a knee issue.  At first, I thought that if Robert went on to do the 50K then I would.  If he only did the 35K, then that would give me an excuse to stop at the 35K.  I was tired, but I actually felt pretty decent.  After I found out that Robert stopped at the 35K, Josh and I talked.  He suggested that I could outdo Robert if I completed the 50K.  That made up my mind.  I told him and the director that I was going on.

That last 10 was kind of lonely, as there was only 15 of us that went on.  We were pretty spread out.  The first mile or so was easy, as it was a very popular, well used trail.  It soon got back to the tough woods, the swamps and rivers.  The rivers got worse on that stretch, as it had been raining more steady.  I used a big stick to help me wade through the rivers.  I just kept trudging on..I had to hike a lot.  My legs were too tired to run, unless it was flat or downhill.

I met Matt and then John, as they were heading back to the finish.  I assumed they were first and second place and I was happy for them.

I finally reached the 5 mile aid station and turned around.  I “ran” with a guy from Richmond for a while.  He was in his 50s and part of the Richmond Road Runners Club.  He has done this race several times and has done Promise Land 8 or 9 times.  He passed me and put a little distance between us those last 3 miles.

With around 1 mile to go, David Landes was waiting on me, near a river crossing.  I was glad to see him.  He ran that last mile with me.  I was also happy to see that Gina, Dru, and Sean were waiting at the finish line for me..that meant a lot.  I was honored that they waited, even though I asked Josh (at end of 35K) that no one wait on me.

I finished the race at 7:04, so it took almost 3 hours to do that last 10, between me being tired and the conditions and terrain.

I got several compliments for finishing the race in those conditions.  I would say that was my best race yet, as far as the adventure aspect of it.   I had a blast.  I had felt good and strong all day…that is a great feeling.

Here is my garmin report.

Here is the results link, separated into 35K and 50K

I would definitely do this race again.  The conditions would not normally be like this, but I enjoyed it.  The conditions added a lot to this race.  There are no big climbs…relatively flat, runnable terrain.

I highly recommend this as a first ultra race.