This weekend I traveled up to West Virginia, and I ran my first ultra in about 16 months, and more importantly, my first 50K since my tibial stress fracture. The short version is that I finished the race just under 7 hours, which on this day, was strong enough to win as the first female finisher of the 50K. If you want the longer version, keep reading… I put in headers so that you can skim/skip.

Choosing the race and training

How did I pick Haulin’ in the Holler? I always need a goal to keep me moving forward. I was eying this race for a while, and I registered back in January (after successfully completing the Frosty 25K). I love random little trail races, and the timing was right for what I thought I could get done, plus, I’ve never run in West Virginia before – it would be state #10 for me! I couldn’t find too much about the race. There was a facebook page with positive reviews, but not much in the way of blog posts – a couple 25K summaries. The webpage has a map, but not an elevation profile (that may have a scared me off). Registration was pretty affordable: $55 for the race, and an extra $20 to opt into a shirt (a Patagonia quarter zip).

Patagonia quarter zip
Low-quality photo of the optional Patagonia shirt

How did training go? Well, it could have been better. I had a couple limitations going into training. I did run a 25K (pretty strongly) in the beginning of January, but I really didn’t come into this cycle with enough of a base to sustain some of my higher mileage runs. So, I ran some 18s, 19s, and a 20 – with a mid-distance long run the day after to run tired on my feet, but my weekly mileage probably could have been higher. Some of this was because I skipped runs. Also, I got a wicked cold in February that knocked me out of running for about a week and a half. So, I averaged about 28 mpw over 12 weeks, and I capped out at 40 miles at my peak. Not a whole lot of running. I also strength train 3 hours a week (if we’re counting).

Except for the lower overall mileage, most of my runs felt great. I was able to nail my workouts. Only skipping them when I was sick, and maybe when I was sick of snow. I did a fair amount of long runs with some pacing work, and those all felt strong. Also, I did HR training this cycle. I’ve been working with coaches over at Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching. Although, I don’t know how much is attributable directly to HR training (I did like having an excuse to not power uphill on most of my runs).

Race weekend and logistics

Aside from training, my other big concern was weather. We’ve been having ‘weather’ here in the Appalachians. And about a week out from the race, I started following the forecast daily. On the Wednesday before the race – the forecast included snow on race day! There was much anxiety! As we approached race day, the forecast changed to possible rain. And race day weather was in the high 20s at the start, the high 30s for most of the race, cloud cover, and light rain after I finished. It was actually really great running weather. What I can tell from the 2017 photos, that race day was warm – people in tank tops and shorts. So, March in WV can go in any direction.

I decided to spend the weekend in WV. The host town Eleanor, is about 3 hours from where I live in Blacksburg. A bit too far to drive up the morning of the race, and I didn’t think I would want to drive back after. So, two nights in Wild, Wonderful West Virginia (that is their state slogan). The race does offer free camping – but freezing temps were not enticing for staying overnight in a tent (tho, runners did opt to camp out this year). Since I was traveling solo, I stayed in Charleston for two nights, about 30 to 40 minutes away from the race, and the capital of WV.

Overall, I liked Charleston. It’s definitely an older, industrial city that still has many buildings from another era, the heart of the city is the Kanawha (ka-NAH) River. And it seems like they are growing their restaurant scene. The downtown is walkable, and if I had more time, I bet there are some fun things to do. My big takeaway is that we should all go to Pies and Pints – a local chain with artisan pizza and a great beer selection.

Bib Pickup and Race Review

Bib pickup was Friday night, and Saturday morning before the race. I opted to drive over Friday night. I wanted to make sure I knew where to go on race day, and buy myself a little time in the morning. I’m glad I went over early. The website only provides details that pickup is at the county park, at a concession stand. There is a pin dropped that you can map to, but it only works on Google Maps (I typically default to Apple Maps because my VW has Apple CarPlay). I found my way to the stand after driving around, and picked up my packet. I also had to sign a VERY LONG waiver. I’ll be honest, I didn’t read all of it, but something about additional disclaimers from the property owners whose land we would be running through.

Saturday morning, I drove back out. I pulled up about 8am, and parked my car for an 8:30am start. I waited till 15 minutes before the start, and walked over. There were some pre-race announcements from a man that appeared to be the race director. It was all pretty straightforward, follow the orange tape that would be marking the course. And then a shout to start, and we were off. I do love tiny races where you can park right at the start and literally roll out.

So, I knew very little about this race leading into it. I knew I would run 2-25K loops, there would be switchbacks, there were aid stations approximately every 5 to 6 miles. I never really learned what the total elevation was. The map on the website just shows a tangle what appear to be overlapping courses on a mountain.

I’m going to try to describe the course sections. Unfortunately, my phone got angry, and was on a low battery, so I shut it off for most of the run, not many photos for you. We all started running on the park roads to circle back to a trail head on the other side of the park. I think this was a good start, because we all ran as a pack, and it let us thin out a bit. That first part on the road was about a mile, and then you hit the single track. The first few miles here are not technical at all, wide single track, and while you know you’re climbing, it’s very gradual. The first three to four miles on the single track are super well kept, and all very runnable (in fact the whole course is pretty runnable). I hit the first aid station just over 5 miles in.

Once you leave the first aid station, you’re climbing again – still all runnable, but you know you’re going up. This stretch has tons of switchbacks, the course folds onto itself multiple times. You never cross on this course, but you’re running a really tight area. To me, it made me chuckle, it had a little bit of a Benny Hill vibe, all these people running in different directions. Anyway, you climb until about mile 8 or 9, and then you stay on the ridge line for a bit. It can get mildly confusing, you’re looking for orange tape, and sometimes another section of the course looks like it’s just ahead of you, but you turn and go another way. I never got lost out there, I did stop one person that almost missed a turn (yellow tape on the ground denoted areas you shouldn’t go).

Haulin' Course Map
Haulin’ Course Map

Aid station number two was about 10.5 miles in, you’re still running on the top at this point. There are moderate ups and downs, but not bad. Coming out of aid station two, there’s one more steep climb, and then you start coming back down off the mountain. These switchbacks (really all of them) are loooooong, they go all the way across the sides of the hills/mountains, so it really doesn’t feel like you’re climbing or descending at all. The last three-ish miles to the finish, you run through some rock formations, and then switchback it down. You can see the finish for a quite a while in the last two miles, and it can be frustrating when you just want be down there.

Haulin' Elevation Profile
Haulin’ Elevation Profile

About the laps: There are waaaay more 25K runners than 50K runners at this event. All in, that makes the first lap a little more crowded, a little more social, and a little more motivating. I found all the runners to be amicable and friendly (I’m a chatterbox on the trails). The second lap was super lonely. I was passed by two men on that second lap, and we chatted for a bit on the trails as they passed me, but really didn’t see anyone out there. The aid stations are a bright spot. They are staffed by the local Boy Scout troop, and they are pretty fun and energetic.

Overall review of this race: Really well organized, great staff and volunteers, beautiful course, awesome optional shirts if you dig it, handmade awards if you dig that. There’s no crowd support, but if you’re running trail races, that’s the norm. A+, 5 starts, whatever you want to say here. Check out the race.

My performance

I already mentioned my training could have been stronger here. I did focus all my long runs (or most of them) on trails, with climbing. And this course was less technical, and less steep than what I run at home. My goals going in this race were (1) to finish, and (2) to not have this be my slowest 50K – which is currently Big Basin with a time of 7:26.

I felt good and strong for the first loop. Maybe too good and strong, although I didn’t feel like I was pushing it, I may have run that first loop too fast. I made it to the half-way point at about 3:10 or 3:15, feeling great, and two people told me they thought I was the lead woman. I had passed three other 50K women in the second half of the first loop.

I started my second loop with a PB&J sandwich and high spirits. And then, I noticed I was slowing down, and not feeling so awesome. Sometime after I ticked over to mile 20, I noticed my leg was sore – IT Band issues in my left leg that would persist for the rest of the race. I really attribute this to lower training mileage. I didn’t have any IT band problems during training, and it cleared itself up pretty quickly post race. I slogged through. I did see some other runners (besides the two guys that passed me), another dude that wasn’t far behind me, and one of the women I had passed on the first lap of the course. Because of the way the loops turn in on themselves I had no idea how close or how far back those runners were.

While my body was annoyed and achy, my cardio felt fine. My HR was solidly in zone 1 or zone 2 for the duration of the second half, I just couldn’t get my legs to cooperate. I continued to watch my average pace increase second by second, which is a a frustrating feeling. At some point, I changed the display to total time, and set an informal goal to come in under 7 hours (I would doubt myself on that one too). The last 3 to 4 miles were really tough. I forgot how hard it is to run a damn 50K. I wanted to push and run, but walking felt so much better – especially because the downhill was painful on my knee/IT Band.

In that last bit of the last loop, I forced myself to run. And really thinking that I would top out over that 7 hour mark. No matter what, I would meet my goal of beating Big Basin. I still thought I would be the first woman in, but dang was I annoyed at how slow I was at this point. I was giving myself pep talks, all by myself in the woods. And finally, I came back out to the clearing. The finishing chute took runners around a small corral to the finish line. I made it in at 6:54 (I think, still waiting on the official time). I hugged the race official at the finish line. I was so happy not to be running anymore.

I did in fact win, I was the first woman to cross. I gladly took my award made by those Boy Scouts, and I also got an Altra gift card (totally unexpected!!). I chatted the race staff for a bit, wandered over to the refreshments, and found some delicious potato soup.

Some overall stats and information:

  • This race was my 17th marathon or longer, my 7th ultra, and my 5th 50K, with my second slowest 50K time
  • This was also my 10th state, which means I can register for the 50 states club now (a pipe dream)
  • This is the 2nd 50K that I’ve won – the other being the 2016 You Don’t Know Jack 50K in Missouri
  • Here’s my Strava entry for this race
  • I’ll update some finisher stats when the results are posted

What’s next for me? I’ve penciled in the Eastern Divide 50K, right here in my backyard.