Monday, November 3, 2014

Virgil Crest Ultras 50k Race Report

I had been training for about three months for the Wineglass Marathon, when I heard about this beauty. For some time, I'd had the crazy idea that I wanted to run an ultra. Sure, a marathon would be a nice challenge, but I wanted to know if I could go beyond that. I know I'm not a speed demon, so it's highly unlikely that I'll ever qualify to run Boston. A 3:05 marathon isn't in the cards for me, well, maybe if I were on a bike... and even that'd be close. No, I may not be fast, but there were times that I'd hit a groove, and feel like I could just run for days. 

I know, I know... 50k... It's barely an ultramarathon. Some purists don't consider a race an 'Ultra' unless it's at least 50 miles. Well, I don't care what the purists think. The Virgil Crest Ultras 50k wasn't your typical 50k. I am amazed at the pure determination of the endurance 'machines' that attempted and conquered this course. Any of the distances. I think the 50 miler would've broken me. Forget the 100.

I went into this race with "finish" as my goal. Having never run any more than 20 miles at one time, I knew I'd be challenged. I did, however, do almost all of the marathon training plan that I had been following. I figured that this was my best chance at completing an ultra, and I wasn't sure that I'd want to go through the training again if I didn't end up loving Wineglass a few weeks later.

I knew this race would take me awhile, I just had no idea how long that 'while' was... My 20 mile training runs through the very flat Otsiningo Park in Binghamton, took me around 3 hours and 20 minutes, so I was hoping for somewhere in the 6 hour range to finish. I just didn't want to miss a cutoff. I didn't want to be pulled from the course, especially if I was still moving.

The week before the race, I tried my best to conserve some energy and rest my left foot. I had been experiencing some pain above the feeble curve that is technically considered an 'arch' and I knew that logging extra miles would only make it worse. I did my daily mile to keep my run streak alive, and little more. Luckily, I was also blessed with some type of sinus issue/head cold the day before the race! Hooray! There's nothing a runner loves more than a head full of snot, and if you don't believe me, just run behind one for awhile.


I woke up early, on little sleep (partly due to excitement and partly the aforementioned cold) and talked myself into/out of several different clothing and gear options. In the end, I ended up going with the stuff that I was hoping would be most comfortable:

  • 2013 Binghamton Bridge Run Tech Tee
  • Adidas Soccer Shorts (w/ Under Armour Boxer Jock)
  • Zensah Calf Sleeves
  • Swiftwick Socks
  • Altra Lone Peak 2.0 trail shoes
  • Outdoor Products Hydration Pack
The shoes were the toughest decision. I have been running the trails in my INOV-8 X-Talon 190s for a long time, but I felt I'd need some extra cushion for those additional miles. I had been running in the Altra Torins on the road, and the Lone Peaks seemed like a logical choice. I think I made a good decision. The Lone Peaks performed well. Although they felt squishy at times, they got me through with minimal slipping. No blisters or black toenails to report.

I filled the bladder for my hydration pack with some water a few days before, to give me some solid ice for the run. It worked well to keep my Gatorade cold for the early stages of the race. 

As for pre-race fuel, I went to my tried and true Honey Stinger waffles. I had a chocolate and a vanilla on the ride to the race with Jim and Jonathan. Looking back, I probably should've had a little more, but they definitely didn't give me any stomach issues.

Jim Devona's awesome 3-D printed elevation map of the course. 
The Course

The 50k course took you from Hope Lake to the first Aid Station at the Hitching Post. From there, you had another 4.7 miles to the Cortland 9 Aid Station. From there, you trekked another 5.7 miles up the mountain and back down to the Hurt Locker Aid Station. Then, retraced your steps to head back home. Total 33.4 miles (if you didn't get lost along the way...).

Check-In and Pre-Race

Thanks for the ride, Jim and Jonathan! 
When I arrived I saw some people milling around the Start/Finish line, waiting for the next 100 mile runner to come in. The 100 mile race (along with the 50 miler) started the day before, and some of those troopers were still out there, making their way in. I made my way to the check-in table and got my bib, and sweet Atayne arm sleeves, and Red Newt Racing Platypus water bottle. I shuffled through my gear, pretending I knew what I was doing, occasionally chatting with some of the other runners, listening to conversations of strategy and the difficulty of the course sections. It was hard not to doubt my training and my sanity as I saw some of the 100 milers finishing, completely exhausted. There was also an early start option at 6:00 am, so I knew some of the 50k racers were already on the course, and I had no idea what to expect, but I couldn't wait to get started.

The Race

Hope Lake to Hitching Post

I had heard tales of Race Director Ian Golden's ram's horn. He uses the horn to signal the start to his races, and this race was no exception. I lined up in the back of the pack, because I really did want to try to take it easy at the start. He blew the horn, and we were off!

"I always say I'll do it. I tell everyone else to do it. Do as I say, not as I do. Maybe someday I'll actually start off slow, and have energy at the end..." 

Chomping on some watermelon at the Hitching Post Aid Station. Photo: Steve Page 
We made our way around the winding paved path around Hope Lake, and into the woods. For about the first 2 miles, I was feeling like garbage (as usual for the first few miles) wondering if there was any way I'd make it to the first Aid Station. I was miserable. My strides were short, and I felt that I if I somehow managed to finish this thing, it'd take me a year. 

When I hit a muddy patch, I threw my conservative plan out the window. As the runners in front of me were finding the best way around the mud, I saw this as an opportunity to lengthen my stride. I sped up, and got through the mud relatively easily. After that, downhill... My weakness. I LOVE running downhill... FAST. I took off. I passed several people on that stretch, and just kept going. I started feeling better. Maybe I could finish this thing. For a stretch I found myself trying to keep pace with a seasoned runner that I had no business keeping up with, but I pressed on anyway. I pulled into the first aid station feeling pretty strong, and was ready for some fuel. I grabbed some salt potatoes and watermelon wedges and headed out towards the Cortland 9.

Hitching Post to Cortland 9

With 10k under my belt, I was ready to tackle the next section which was only a measly 4.7 miles. I was running hard, and enjoying the varying terrain. There were dips and climbs, drops into empty creek beds, and I couldn't help but think about how much tougher this course would've been with my feet being cold and wet from a creek, or running this same section with a headlamp in the dead of night. I passed some of the 100 milers coming back, and offered them encouragement. 

Somewhere along the way, I must've let my mind wander a little too much... I was very surprised that I wasn't at the Cortland 9 Aid Station, yet. It had been almost an hour since I was at the last aid station, and I should've been there by now. I was running along, noticing the marks on the trees, but didn't see any of the reflectors that had been marking the course. As I jumped over larger and larger trees crossing the path (on what must've been an old logging road) I knew something wasn't right. I decided that I must've made a wrong turn, and headed back. I retraced my steps and when I got back to the actual course I realized that I had COMPLETELY zoned out, and jumped over a well marked area, instead of making a turn and heading up the hill. As I laughed at myself, and my approximate 2 mile detour, I joined some of the runners that I had passed in the muddy section, and headed to the aid station (which wasn't far from my missed turn). I grabbed some water, a salt tab, and tried to eat some 'real food'. There were more salt potatoes, ginger ale, pierogies, and some other miscellaneous goodies. As with the last aid station, all of the volunteers were so helpful. "What do you need? What can I get you? Do you need your pack filled?" If I had known the beast that lie in wait, I would've asked for an ATV. Instead I took (off on foot) back down the hill to towards the Hurt Locker... 

Cortland 9 to Hurt Locker

I'll be honest... I don't remember much of this section. I think it's my brain's way of protecting me. Not only did we come out of the cool woods into the relatively hot sun, we had to run a stretch of paved road for awhile, before hit the ski slopes. It was brutal. My run became a jog, which became a power hike, which became a walk, which became a shuffle. Just when I thought I got to the top, I rounded the corner, only to find MORE uphill. If you look at the elevation map below, you'll see that section between 11 and 16.7 miles that dips down to the depths of hell, and then goes STRAIGHT up. Yeah, that's the spot I'm talking about... The worst part was, that the downhill on the way back DOWN to the Hurt Locker Aid Station was so steep that there was no running it. I had nothing left in my legs to prevent me from falling flat on my face. I walked some of that section sideways, just to use different muscles. When I got to the aid station, I found another group of friendly volunteers the (Trails ROC group), and BACON! There were other runners, sitting/laying down. I felt like crap, but I was happy to still be standing. I was halfway there. I couldn't stop now.

Hurt Locker to Cortland 9

More of the same on the way back. Grueling hills, but it was made more tolerable knowing that I had already been through here. The downside, I knew I had already been through here... Halfway back through this section, I think my lack of fueling strategy (and experience) started catching up with me. I started slowing down. I kept hearing other runners come up behind me, and I found that I couldn't keep up, when they passed. I was reaching my previous longest distance, and I knew I still had another half marathon to go. If I could just get back to Cortland 9, It'd be smooth sailing from there, right?

Cortland 9 to Hitching Post

After almost 2 hours of suffering, I made it back to the Cortland 9 aid station. I knew I had it in me to finish, but now I was worried about the cutoff time. At this point I didn't think there were many people left on the course, and I needed to pick it up to be able to finish. I had no idea of my pace, but I took as little time as I could at the aid station, and pressed on. I had surpassed any distance I had every run before, and at this point, the hills had taken their toll. I was struggling to run, even on the flat sections. Luckily, a fellow runner caught up to me, and we ran together for awhile. It helped to pass some time, but I just couldn't keep up. As I watched him go ahead, my jog slowed to a walk again.

Hitching Post to Hope Lake

When I arrived back at the Hitching Post, the first thing I asked was "Am I under the cutoff?" One of the volunteers said, "Oh, yeah! We wouldn't cut you off, after going this far. You've got this!" Music to my ears. I would finish. I had to. There was no way that I'd be stopping at this point. The reality set in. Even though I had underestimated this course, I went out too fast, and I was totally inexperienced, I would finish. 

Almost there.  Photo: Sarah Kuss
I set off for my final 10k, tired, but happy. I kept telling myself, "It's only 10k. You've run a TON of these. Just run this last bit." But I couldn't. I was walking at a good pace, but I just had a hard time sustaining a run for more than a few minutes. I kept thinking to myself... "I'll be reaching the clearing at the lake, soon. Right? It has to be soon..." It wasn't. Even though I had run this course just a few hours before, it looked completely foreign to me. "Did I get lost again? No... There's another marker. Just keep going." Oh, yeah, when you're running for hours on end, you start talking to yourself, out loud. I think it's completely normal. I talk to myself, normally, but it was almost as if my brain couldn't 'think' without my mouth telling it to. "Finally, I reached the clearing! Oh, wait, this isn't it... This is just a dirt road. Did I run this before? More markers, I must've." 

This went on for some time, with me hearing cheering voices (which must've been in my head - because there was no one around), running past some random guy with a shotgun (who was annoyed, and said "Jeez, you 'runner guys' are all the way out HERE?!") until I finally reached the clearing. I could hear my fiancée, Sarah and my friend Jeff cheering from up on the hill. I was back on the paved path around the lake. So close, yet so far. I was running again, but not fast, by any means. Finally the finish. 


I was happy to learn that I wasn't the last person still running on the course (keeping the volunteers from getting home to dinner), but finished 27th of 58 runners. Not bad for my first Ultra. 

Profile of the course and my splits from the website
Final Thoughts

Photo by Sarah Kuss
Overall, this race was an AMAZING experience. I would do it again in a heartbeat. The atmosphere was amazing, and everyone was friendly and welcoming.

Thanks to Ian Golden for designing such a challenging course, Confluence Running, all of the awesome volunteers, and most of all, my friends & family for all of your understanding and support of my crazy pursuits (and for dealing with my hours of training, and the incessant babbling about it).


Feeling inspired to take your running to the next level? 

Registration opens November 17.


About the Author:

Joe Brienze returned to running in 2012, feeling nostalgic about that one season of cross country in high school. He is a member of the Triple Cities Runners Club and Team Confluence and blogs at

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