This race was intended to be ran May 2nd… it was pushed to September 20th, due to COVID. I believe this worked out even better for the race, especially from a weather stance. We stayed at the park campground, 5 minutes from the start. Race morning, the low was 38 and the high was 52… PERFECT.
The race required “wave starts” to comply with state rules, Sean (RD) sent out an email a few weeks before announcing our seated start times. This was calculated off past UltraSignup results. Based on those results, I was seated 8th, and would start in the “Elite” wave consisting of 17 others.
Race morning, walking to the start line was a little different with no large group, however, it was still a start line and internally I was as jacked as I ever am knowing it was almost go time. Sean made some pre-race announcements and let us know there was a small reroute within the first 2 miles, along with the elimination of an out and back section that would shorten the course a bit.
Sean always starts each of his races with a loud, “We are here… To have fun!” Immediately after, there was a quick countdown, and we were underway.
Within the first 100 meters, there were 2 guys who hammered it down the road and onto the first piece of single track… This was the section just added the morning of. It was a steep techy section which dropped for about ¾ of a mile before it began to climb back out. When exiting this little off shoot, we were rewarded with an absolutely killer view down into the valley.
At this point, approximately 2 miles in, I was sitting in 5th place. We veered left onto the road and begin descending for the next two miles. We hit a little section here that brought us into a nice double track that ran along a rushing creek… It pretty much ascended all the way back up to the Massie Gap parking lot where we had dropped in.
At mile 5, you hit what is Massie Gap and the Highlands. This is the famous area with the Wild Ponies! They are real and they are everywhere. You also cross and briefly run a couple sections of the Appalachian Trail which is always cool.
At this point I was running with a guy named Will, who was based out of Chattanooga, TN and was coming off a great finish at Never Summer 100K. We were cruising around at this point, chatting about life, sitting in 3rd/4th, not knowing if we would ever see 1st or 2nd. This course is technical, fist sized rocks in almost every step, running up creeks, down creeks, and through creeks. Its absolutely a blast, but the miles do not necessary fly by.
Will pulled off for a quick bathroom break and I kept moving on. This was a rolling section with a couple decent climbs, and I was moving consistently. I finally had my first glimpse of 2nd place. I moved past him on the climb right as we were coming into the first Aid Station (Scales, Mile 10.5).
Leaving Scales, 2nd/3rd/4th were all together (10 min off of 1st!) … We took a hard right through a fence onto Crest Trail and “Holy Shit” … we were standing face to face with two HUGE steer. Their horns legitimately spanned the width of the trail, which left neither us nor the steer much option. The guy behind Will and I was wearing a red vest, and I knew the place to be was not between the steer and a dude in red. There was no where to go, so I basically just shimmied up the steep hill side the best I could, slicing my finger open on something, as the steer came past.
(FYI: This is not my pic... but this is the dude.)
Once I got my heart rate back down, I continued the 3.5 mile climb up and into Wilburn Ridge and the open Highlands at the base of Mt.Rogers (highest point in VA). I had pulled away a bit from Will through this climb, sitting in 2nd, as I came into what is 100% the most spectacular part of this race, with views for miles in all directions I was just completely in the moment and so thankful for the ability and opportunity to run in places like this.
I was brought back into reality, by a runner coming the other direction… I immediately thought to myself, “You have got to be f***ing kidding me… where did I miss a turn?!” Fortunately for me, he was in the wrong not me. He had started in a later wave and was about as far off course as I think he could have been… Legend has it, he’s still out there.
I did, however, end up making a small mistake shortly after, I went straight when I should have made a hard right. I luckily saw Will also wandering around looking for markers. We quickly got back on track and once again, we were back together. At mile 15 you begin a 5-mile descent full of creek crossing and technical sections, back into the forest. It was clear Will was a much better downhill runner than I was and he continually pulled away the entire descent.
I saw a quick glimpse of him leaving Aid 2 (Camp Store – Mile 18). I had my bottle lids off and ready for the volunteer to fill me up and was out in no time. I was determined to at least get back on his hip.
The section from mile 18 to 22 is on Wilson Creek Trail, this was an awesome Rhododendron lined trail with a ton of roots, following Wilson Creek. I felt home and super comfortable through this section. Usually around this time of a hard 50K my stomach starts to rebel… but ever since Black Canyon 100K, I had been dialing in my nutrition for months and I still felt as great as you can deep into a hard effort. I thought for sure I was making up a bit of time.
I came out of the woods into Aid 3 (Rock House Ridge, Mile 23). The volunteers were great, they offered me some bacon, which I refused… and told me I wasn’t too far behind. They also made it very clear the remaining 4.5 miles were on the road and climbed all the way to the finish. They were not lying. You climb 1,400 ft in the last 4 miles… After about a mile on the road, I was resorted to a power hike. At mile 2 of the climb, you take a hard left off the road back onto single track… This was the first time I begin to feel my quads wanting to cramp. My goal was just to maintain and assure I finished.
One of the worst things about this course is you literally run right past the finish line, and you still have 1.5-2 miles left… You continue climbing all the way up to Twin Pinnacles. It’s the highest point in Grayson Highlands State Park and is absolutely beautiful. As I peaked, I saw the race photographer, she told me I only had ½ miles to the finish. I asked her “You swear?”. I was shot at this point… but she assured me, and I ran it in from there.
Never able to catch Will, I crossed in 3rd place overall with a time of 4:34.
From an East Coast perspective, this is about as beautiful of a race as you can find. It has a little bit of everything, and the water falls and expansive views take it to a whole new level. I highly, highly recommend it to anyone.
Thanks to Run Bum Tours for an incredible race... and Appalachian Exposures for the race pics!