When I began writing this I had no idea it would turn into a novel. So to save your eyes, I have broken it into two (still lengthy) parts.
The first part (below) will be just a description of the course. The lack of what I feel is an adequate description of this course needed what I am writing.
The second part is my own personal race and will be posted separately. I hope you enjoy.
Old Dominion 100 Mile Cross Country Run
This is a bittersweet recap to write indeed. Never before have I not finished a race. But in the interest of self-preservation, as well as an eye to the near future, when sheer exhaustion took over at mile 86 (and foot problems as well) I am glad to say I did something very non Dane-like and decided NOT to push through until the end. Unlike earlier in the year when I pushed through the pain and exhaustion in my 50k, here was neither the time nor the place to continue. (How utterly ironic that in my last blog I mentioned I might DNF at mile 86).
What makes this most pleasurable for me is how I get to share the info I learned, not only about 100 mile races but also specifically this 100 mile race. You see, in the months leading up to this race I scoured the internet looking for detailed course descriptions or race reports from those who had run it. Instead of something that may actually help you, I found “From about mile 5 to mile 7 or so you climb Woodstock Mountain. The first aid station is at the top.” Believe me, there is much more information that could be shared about that particular section of the course, as well as many other sections. As such, I am hoping that this recap will be the tip of the iceberg of information shared about the Old Dominion 100 Mile Cross Country Run.
In addition, I have some suggestion for the race directors. I was pleased with how they handled most aspects of the day but where they were lacking was unfortunately, in the most glaring of spots. Therefore, I will not only offer constructive criticism, but praise them where they deserve it.
So while my race ended 14 miles short of the finish (and therefore I obviously cannot give the most detailed description of this part) I think this will be a rather definitive guide for first time 100 mile runners or veterans looking to learn more about this specific course. What is a very challenging race and part of the 100 mile race lore of this country (the Old Dominion 100 Mile Race is the second oldest 100 mile race in the country) should not be delegated to sporadic bits of information found through hours of searching.
I have come to the conclusion that sometimes the ultra running-community almost wishes for newbies to have to suffer through the same first-time difficulties that they did before the proliferation of information through the internet and other places. Almost as if you have to earn your stripes to be included in the club. Granted, once you are there, you are embraced with opens arms. But apparently, getting there is more than half the battle. While knowledge alone will not carry you over a ridiculously difficult climb, it assuredly is a powerful weapon in the battle to tackle a tough 100 mile race. Therefore, I will give you as much information as I can in order to prepare you for the Old Dominion 100. Let me begin.
The first part of the race is very simple. You start behind some farm show barn in the Shenandoah Fairgrounds parking lot at 800 feet of elevation.
(N.B. Here is where I wish for you to pay particular attention to the information I will give regarding the elevation of the aid stations. I can think of few more important things I can share about this race than this little tidbit. While one particular aid station will be a certain number of feet above/below the previous one, do not make the mistake I made in thinking the change will be gradual or constant in any way, shape, or form. For example, a 200 foot negative change over 5 miles might very well mean that you go up a net total of 500 feet and then down 700 feet and do so in any varying degree of steepness and broken up into any amount amounts of hills. If there is a specifically difficult part of the course that does something akin to this, I will be sure to make note of that. I unfortunately knew the differences in the elevations of the aid stations but was not aware of how much up and down occurred in between them. I can tell you right now, few things are more demoralizing than knowing you have to run down hill eventually but you are presently climbing up a mountain.)
A quick trip around a horse track, then around the back lot and into the streets of Woodstock you go. You have to watch for an unmarked turn from one street whose name starts with a “C” onto another street whose name starts with “C”. I don’t care how many times you tell me to make sure I turn on Cross Street leading to Commerce Street the day before the race (or even if you describe it in the famed red book that is handed out to race participants) at 4 AM I am not going to remember those directions. Mark the turn, please. Slight criticism number 1.
From there you run fairly straight through town to the first set of rolling hills and a small aid station with water (mile 2.98; elevation 700). If you are lucky, the moon will be out and will light your way, but if not it is quite possible you will need a lighting device of some sort through this first section. I suggest a lightweight headlamp or even a small flashlight as both will get you through the first few miles successfully. Hopefully, you will not need either for very long, as the sun rises early on the first weekend in June. This section is either paved or a gravel road and is not too hard on the legs whatsoever.
After a few hills of up and down you reach the foothills leading up to the top of Woodstock Mountain. As the one writer above so succinctly put it, you do traverse 2 miles of road to the top where an aid station lies. However, it is important to know that while this section is quite steep, and filled with switchbacks (all on paved roads), it is also very easy to fast walk. This section never stops going up, so you know there is no undulation from the bottom to the top. Each runner knows his own body best but personally, as a person who really despises uphills, I found it rather easy to just do a fast race-walk that not only had me staying with the guy who was “running” next to me, but also had me feeling great.
At the top of the mountain lies the aid station (mile 7.18; elevation 1800), where volunteers are waiting with both water and Succeed, some sort of electrolyte drink, which I was in no way fond of drinking. These volunteers stress that somewhere in the next mile or so ,as you begin a very quickly run downhill, you must stay to the left. This obviously has been a problem in the past as runners made a wrong turn. I feel if it warrants telling runner, the problem could be easily remedied by placing a glow stick (or “chem light” as the race people called them) where the turn was supposed to be. This lack of adequate lighting in tricky spots will be a reoccurring theme with me and was one of two glaring miscues or errors that I feel could easily be remedied. Perhaps I am a wimpy runner but when I am in the middle of traversing 528,000 feet (that’s 100 miles folks!), I do not care to think too much.
Coming down the hill, runners must be careful not to go out too fast. The steep grade coupled with the smooth road allows for runners to easily forget they have 93 miles left to run. From the top of the mountain to the next aid station called In Boyer (mile 10.17; elevation 1100 feet), the roads are either all paved or an easily runnable gravel road. This section is almost all downhill so the 700 feet of elevation you lose is rarely gained back at all in any part. This aid station is manned by Ray Waldron, the race director and a very nice guy, who has on his truck, water, Succeed, and various cookies and candies. After making a left turn, you head about 100 meters up the road and enter the first trail section of the course.
The trail section is not exceedingly difficult, especially this early in the race. By the time 99% of runners get to this section it will no longer be dark and the use of any lighting device will not be necessary. I am unsure if it is allowed, but since you pass Ray and his truck again after the trail section, it might be possible for you to leave your light with his truck to be picked up when you come back later. But I digress.
The trail is through the woods, has some sharp climbs which apparently mirror portions of the Massanutten Mountain trail race. Runners will twist and turn here and there, and the footing can be a little rocky with patches of dirt but usually you have plenty of room for a solid footfall without fear of loose gravel or a root to twist your ankle. After a few miles of this trail (~ 2.5-3 miles) you pop back onto the road and head back to the Boyer Aid Station about 1.5-2 miles away. The gravel roads with solid footing and a few small uphills and downhills are a nice change of pace after the trail. Ray greets you again at the Boyer Out aid station (mile 14.61, elevation 1100) and sends you down the road the opposite direction. You begin by following a pristine mountain stream to your right on a mostly downhill slope for a few miles. This is an extremely pleasant section and even on a day that may get hot later, the deep woods are cool here.
A rather nondescript section follows with a few turns marked with the orange ribbons that runners will become quite accustomed to seeing. Anytime there is a turn on the course that could be confusing, there are supposed to be two ribbons hanging somewhere from a tree or bush. At that point, runners must look to find the next singular orange ribbon and that tells them the way to go. These were, for the most part, adequate, but there are a few places (like when Boyer Road comes to an intersection and somehow makes a 90 degree angle left turn onto…Boyer Road) where a little more guidance would have been helpful. That said, whenever you are in doubt, it is far worth the 30 seconds to stop and make sure you are going the right direction than to hurry through and have to double back.
You end this section by going up a gradual but long hill to the very first pit crew/drop bag station (mile 19.64; elevation 1100). This is where it first started to dawn on me that knowledge alone of the elevations of each aid stations was not going to be all that helpful. In the last hill leading up to this area, I had climbed, at the very least, 200 feet up. Yet somehow this aid station was at the same level of the one before it (obviously because of the up and down prior).
These pit crew/drop bag stations are where runners who have left personal bags of refreshments or changes of clothes can have access to those bags. In addition, if you have a crew, these are the only places where the crew is allowed to meet you. No crew is allowed to follow you on any section of the race course.
Thoughts on how to run this first section:
1. Obviously weather plays a large part in the decision making process of any race, especially one of this distance. However, if the days before this race are dry and the race is dry, there is little to no need to wear trail shoes during the first 20 miles of the course. Only 4 plus miles are on anything other than road and a decent pair of running shoes can get you through here easily. I mention the dryness, as the trail could be slick and muddy and then trail shoes would help. Other than that, they are not needed
2. Like I mentioned, lighting devices are barely needed here, if at all. A small Maglite should suffice, especially if it is a clear night with a solid moon.
3. I never believe in “banking time” hoping to have time in reserve in case of slowing down later on, but if the day is going to be warm, this is the section where you can put some easy miles in behind you as quickly as possible. With very little technical running whatsoever, cool temperatures, and all your energy available, this section can be used to get you a nice head start on the day.
The next 13 miles are very easy to describe. You will be running on paved roads in about 60% shade. Boom. There you go. The aid stations at miles 22.71 (elevation 900), 25.38 (elevation 900) and 28.52 (elevation 1000) are all adequately stocked and manned by very nice volunteers. Don’t be surprised if you catch them off guard as many minutes can pass between when they see any semblance of runners.
Throughout these miles you will get rolling country hills with there being a small abrupt bump here and there. As the roads are country roads, they are by nature narrow and therefore you have to be alert for cars and trucks (who am I kidding; TRUCKS and trucks) barreling down upon you.
Advice: This 13 mile portion, if run intelligently, can be a great time to settle into your race, hide in the shade where you can and tick off a good 13% of your total distance for the day (look at that higher math!).
When you arrive at the next pit crew/drop bag station (mile 32.55; elevation 1200), entitled Four Points #1, you should take a break and rest for a few minutes. The next few portions contain a few of the hardest miles of the course. As such, if you have trail shoes, now is the time to change into them.
Heading out of Four Points #1, you encounter a massive hill on road for about half a mile or more. I highly suggest you power walk this portion. As you near a turn in the road, a gentleman pops out of his truck and gives you some brief directions on how to veer off of the paved road to the left and continue onto the Duncan Hollow Trail, before eventually getting back on the road, going downhill and returning to him in a few miles. As you enter the trail section you can see, if dry, it does not have the worst footing in the world. However, it is a little rocky and very steep. Take it easy through here and you will venture out onto the aforementioned road to begin your trip back down. All paved, the road winds down for at least a mile before you encounter the gentleman from before. You now make a left turn and enter the Duncan Hollow trail from the other side of the road. Here is where the not-so-fun part begins.
As you will notice, when you left FP1, you were at 1200 feet elevation. The next aid station (Peach Orchard) is at mile 38.67 is at 1900 feet of elevation. However, you have already traversed up the paved road, up the trail and then back down the paved road. During these few miles you have lost some of what you have gained in total net elevation, which tells you there will be more to make up later. At first, the trail’s impending difficulty is deceptive as it is very moderate in its upward climb. Soon, however, it gets rather steep and the footing becomes more difficult. And then it goes down a little bit, then it goes back up. Then it goes down. And up. Am I beginning to clarify what you are in store for, yet?
I cannot stress enough the next point. When you leave FP1, cover your entire body in the strongest bug repellent you can legally purchase. Chances are good you are going to sweat a decent amount of it off by the time you enter the trail (it will be either late morning or afternoon depending on your speed) but you will need it. As you climb and climb you notice a fair amount of horse manure. Obviously a trail used by horse riders, it appears that the horses bring insects up to the mountain and then leave them there. In particular, the horse flies can be indescribably infuriating. Even though I had sprayed myself in bug repellent at FP1, I asked the volunteers (whom, by the way, used off-road motorcycles to get to this point, if that tell you anything about the trail) if they had more. Luckily for me, they did and I applied it. Given this aid station had once been deserted on a previous running of the race and runners were left to go 11 miles with no aid, I was just happy they were there.
After this aid station you continue to climb and climb. Only now it is later in the day and the trees are less dense which means the sun is now beating down upon you. The trail footing gets worse as larger rocks must now be negotiated. Unfortunately, the rocks are not anchored into the hill and can slip under your feet. After a tough climb, you finally reach the summit and know you have no more than two miles to go to the next aid station. You begin your descent and more of the same trail awaits you, but this time the footing is slightly better and allows you to gain more steady footfalls as you make up for the slow walking coming up the hill.
At Crisman Hollow Road (mile 43.13; elevation 1900) you have your first weigh-in. I personally think this is a bad time to be weighed, given you have just finished the most difficult portion of the race to that point, and chances are you are quite dehydrated. Nevertheless, it is crucial to stay within a healthy weight range (as you may have also taken IN too much liquid) and the people manning the aid station are helpful and friendly (if not a little bit too chatty.)
The next 4.57 miles to the next pit crew/drop bag station at Four Points #2 (mile 47.70; elevation 1200) is once again all on paved or gravel roads and is, for the most part, a continual descent. A few rollers are thrown in here and there but for the majority of this run you can count on running downhill. Almost all of this section is shaded from the sun so even in high heat, you are, at the very least, blocked from direct sunlight.
Advice: The key to running this section is to wear bug repellent, make sure to wear trail shoes, be ready to walk some seriously steep uphills on uneven footing, hydrate properly and realize your time will be much slower than you would hope it to be. If you do all of those things, you will be fine.
As you leave FP2, you run a little bit of a downhill, turn around a corner and are staring up at a massive hill. From here until the next aid station (mile 50.92; elevation 1900) you will go up, or run level, with no downhill whatsoever. Here is the time to collect your thoughts and settle into a nice power walk. At mile 50, the race people have spray painted a big “50” on the middle of the road. You can inwardly smile knowing you have at least covered half the distance of the course.
Another nice gentleman in a truck checks your number and has a few confections, water, Succeed and some nice words for you as you leave his aid station. After the 700 foot climb, you are happy to see that over the next 5.65 miles you get to go down 200 feet. But, if you thought it was going to be gradual you have not been paying attention. Almost immediately you are hit with another steep uphill rise, again on all paved or gravel roads. It would take a better word smith than I to come up with a new way of saying how the next half a dozen miles are more or less a series of semi-steep uphills which you have to walk, followed by a few downhills which give you a chance to make up some time. With probably one mile to go, the downhill slopes to a high grade with plenty of winds in the road. If you know it (which I did not) and like to run downhill (which I do) you can do so here, because you do not encounter another uphill the rest of the way to Edinburg Gap where the next pit crew/drop bag station lies (mile 56.57; elevation 1700).
Advice: The key to this section is to ditch the trail shoes you were wearing and put some running shoes back on. For nearly 9 miles you will encounter nothing more than a little loose gravel to impede you and whatever is lighter or more comfortable to wear while walking/running should be your shoe of choice.
You begin the next three miles by climbing some ridiculously arduous ATV trails. While you are told that the ATV riders will see the orange ribbons and therefore know something is happening on the trails and act accordingly, it is nevertheless no consolation when some monstrously loud and seemingly out-of-control four-wheeler comes bearing down upon you. Please take extra precaution through this area. The terrain is mostly dry, hard-packed dirt with uneven footing and some large rocks here and there, which could easily become a muddy mess if rain hits it hard enough and long enough. Luckily, the trail has a dense covering of trees and therefore it takes a mighty storm to really wet this area. Conversely, if it is dry, the slightest footfall sends up a cloud of dust.
At the next aid station (mile 59.57; elevation 2000), which consisted of nothing but a cooler of Succeed, a 2 liter of Coke and some cookies, there were no people to even hand it out. I wasn’t even sure it was for the runners until I dispensed the awful tasting Succeed into a cup. Given that previous race recaps described this aid station as an oasis, you can imagine my disappointment.
The ATV trail continued, but now it was almost entirely downhill, gradually and with more footing than before. It is easier to run here than in most places in the preceding 15 miles or so, which allows a runner to finally stretch his legs and eat up some miles. There are a few little puddles to cross which look like they might be permanent, dense covering from above to block any rain or sunlight which may try to permeate through, and a few ATVers here and there. All in all, it is a nice stretch to run on as you hit the next pit crew/drop bag station at Little Fort (mile 64.25; elevation 1300).
Advice: Even with the first few miles of ATV trail, this entire section can again be easily handled by regular running shoes or whatever is most comfortable for a runner to move along quickly. Again, this depends on the weather but I feel this section is shaded enough from any direct weather condition that trail shoes are not needed.
After leaving Little Fort you begin a steep ascent on twisting and turning gravel roads. Again, if you are unfamiliar with the area you are now beginning to despise hills like this when you know that the section has an overall 100 foot net elevation drop. At the top of the hill you realize you are at the place where the volunteers at mile 7 made sure you made the left turn. If you had made the right you would be going down the hill you just came up. So you are once again on familiar turf as you trot the gravelly downhill you ran about 10 hours before. This time, when you get to the spot where Ray’s truck was waiting for you, they have two orange ribbons hanging from the trees, letting you know you make the left once again. However, instead of running 100 meters and then hitting the trails, you continue on the undulating roads that you ran in the opposite direction earlier after you came out of the first trail of the day. Make sense? Good.
This section of gravel roads takes you through a series of small rises. Eventually you find yourself making a right turn into the next aid station at Mudhole Gap (mile 69.48; elevation 1200). Here is where you will begin to get your feet wet. If it is raining, your feet will get really wet. If you are in the middle of your second extended downpour of the day, you will forget what being dry felt like. Within feet of this aid station, you must cross the first of many streams over the next mile or so. If you are not crossing a stream, you are running next to one on a small, but easily runable (if dry) trail. After approximately a mile of this you get spit out on to a tank trail which begins to climb and climb. Looking at your handy-dandy elevation chart, you know that you are supposed to lose a total of 400 feet on this section, yet you have been steadily climbing for quite some time. The occasional short downhill is thrown in just to get you excited and into a running groove until you suddenly must climb again. After about 3 plus miles of this, you begin your descent on the tank trail.
Suddenly, you must make an abrupt left hand turn into the woods and begin running on a hiking trail. Seeing the tank trail continue downwards off in the distance it is hard to leave behind, especially knowing chances are better than average you will climb again before you go down. And climb you do. Not as steep as before and the footing is mostly clear of rocks, but it is a climb nonetheless. Finally, you begin a slow descent that seems to go on far too long until you spot a paved road in the forest. Rarely do you see a paved road on this course that you do not join soon. Sure enough, half a mile later, you turn left, cross the road, run through a picnic area and arrive at the next pit crew/drop bag station lies (mile 74.95; elevation 800).
Here at Elizabeth Furnace you must do your second weigh-in of the day. Also, this is the only point on the course that has a cut-off time. If you are not here by midnight they will not allow you to continue. The reasoning is that with a 28 hour cut-off for the whole race (24 hours to get the Belt Buckle), you cannot do the last 25 miles in 8 hours. Believe me, they are 100% correct in that assessment.
Advice: While the first part of the preceding section can be done without trail shoes, the second half can be done better with them. They are not 100% necessary but the tank trail and hiking trail would be better off without regular running shoes. So little of this 10 mile section is actually spent running (other than the gravel roads) that trail shoes are your best choice for footwear.
The next section, called Sherman’s Gap, begins the hardest portion of any race I have ever run. Whether that is a commentary on my running experience in whole or the course itself is up to others to decide. (One race report stated: “Knowing that Sherman's Gap wasn't quite the "Mt. Everest" some have described was psychologically helpful.”) However, this is the only section of the entire course where you are allowed to have a pacer of any sort whatsoever. Believe me, it will assuredly help you.
Over the next 6 miles runners are supposed to lose 200 total feet of elevation. For the next hour plus, all I did was walk, not run, but WALK up the steepest, rockiest terrain I have ever encountered. If anyone can run up this section, even on fresh legs, they are part billy goat. With loose gravel and large loose rocks, there is very little room left to put a foot down without some slippage. The mountain slopes upward precipitously for what feels like far longer than possible.
By now, all but world-class runners will be in this area after the sun has set and the only light you will get on a cloudy night is the light coming from your headlamp. You absolutely MUST have a headlamp here. While you may wish to also have a flashlight with you, I suggest you use it only as a back-up. You will need your hands to balance you and push on your legs as you climb the mountain. And I mean mountain. This is not a hill. In addition, because of the darkness, the swinging of a flashlight in your hand will become extremely disorientating. The pitch black of the forest is only broken a few feet by your headlamp and focusing on those few feet is all you need to do.
After this horrific climb in the dark you finally begin your weaving, winding descent on rocky switchbacks. With nothing but a light to guide you it is hard to focus on the big picture and constant footing problems can most definitely lead to a psychological beating. This downhill continues on for quite sometime, especially if you are reduced to a walk (as I was).
You finally reach the next aid station (mile 80.9; elevation 600), which is my biggest complaint of the entire race. After what has been, by far, the hardest portion of the course, the only thing that this unmanned aid station contained was a cooler of Succeed and a half-empty bottle of Coke. Here, some 50 yards from the road there could have been a fully-manned aid station which could have pulled runners from a funk and spurred them on. Instead, when all I wanted was some water to quench my thirst, I got nothing. At this point in the race, if you are close to being beaten, psychological effects like this can be hugely detrimental.
Finally back onto the road, it is only 1.89 miles to the next aid station. Unfortunately, this aid station is 200 feet above the one you were just passed. Even more so not in your favor, is the fact that you go up a hill, down a hill and then start climbing again, which you know means you will be in for some back-breaking climbs soon. Not to disappoint, you climb one last hill before making a right turn back towards the woods and into a very well-equipped aid station (mile 82.79; elevation 800). While welcome, of course, the expanse of this aid station was much more necessary two miles back. In addition, during those very same two miles there is a huge lack of sufficient markings with the chem lights. Granted there are not many opportunities to get off the paved road at this point but in the pitch black, exhausted runners need as much assistance as possible.
After leaving this aid station you begin the final trail section of the course. While this is not “as bad” as Sherman’s Gap, it is extremely far from easy. You begin by climbing a long straight trail up the side of the mountain. With a sharp drop to your left into nothingness, bad (but not horrid) footing and little-to-no light besides that which you provide, the steady and relentless climb can and will take its toll. After what seems like an eternity you reach the summit and take a right. There is a signpost declaring some random structure is a mile away but nothing in anything I have read about this course mentions this structure. I therefore pray that it is further away than the aid station. Unfortunately, a mile later when you pass the sign telling you the structure is there (sorry for the vagueness but it escapes me what it was at this point), after picking your feet over fallen trees, a few streams, a trail that actually consisted of a dry river bed (imagine the footing) you realize you still have longer to go.
Finally, the footing evens out and now you are on smooth trail but still in complete darkness. The only gift is the gradual downhill you are on after the long ascent on the other side of the mountain. Eventually you make your way to the next pit crew/drop bag station at Veech West (mile 86.58; elevation 900).
Unfortunately, this is where my specific description of the course must end. The final 14 miles are on all roads which you have run earlier in the race so I can extrapolate for you in lesser detail. From Veech West to the next the next pit crew/drop bag station at the 770/578 road intersection (mile 90.95; elevation 1100) you are tracing your steps from earlier in the race. After that, you go up the tremendously steep hill that you went down after mile 7 in the morning and climb to the top of Woodstock Gap (mile 93.16; elevation 1800) going up 700 feet in 2.21 miles. Following this stop you have one final pit crew/drop bag station at Water Street (mile 97.36; elevation 700) where you have gone down the switchback road from the beginning of the race and a few rollers as well totaling a net descent of 1100 feet in 4.2 miles. This leaves you with the final 2.65 miles to the finish line at 100.01 (just to be safe) and an elevation of 800 feet back at the fairground.
Please bear in mind that this is, of course, the description of one runner who has never done a 100 mile race before. While a neophyte at this distance, I am not a neophyte to running and I feel the description given will be one that a 3-hour marathoner can expect to experience in a race of this nature. More experienced ultramarathoners or more experienced trail runners will have a better experience with this specific course than I did. Even more so, any runner not dealing with excessive heat (our temperatures exceeded 90 degrees) or thunderstorms which soak the feet and make footing difficult, will also have a better race.
I purposefully left most of those weather descriptions out of the course description above and tried to focus only on the course itself in order to give a rather unbiased report of what a runner can expect to encounter. I therefore feel it is rather descriptive of what a runner will encounter, on the average, during any year it is run. I have pages of notes and hints in my head and am happy to share them if you are curious. When all is said and done, if you are looking for a challenging run, one to test your spirit and body, but won’t leave you crippled if run correctly, the OD 100 is one to do.
I now turn to my own race.