From the moment we met David Horton last July at the White River 50, I think we’ve steadily heard the phrase “You’ve got to come out and run one of my races!”. And then after he read Julie’s new book about the Appalachian Trail, he emailed and said we had a lot to talk about and that we should come run his Holiday Lake 50k race in southern Virginia; he even offered to have us stay over at his home after the race. How could we refuse? So after a week of the “Midwest Freeze Your Balls off Tour” up in Wisconsin, Chicago, and Michigan, we drove 11+ hours down to southern Virginia where we were greeted by sunny weather, temps near 50 degrees, and a super-friendly running community.
And thus began what can best be termed the Holiday Lake experience because this event was more than a race where we show up, get our bib number, run the race, and go home. For starters, the race is held at a 4-H campground with bunkhouses, a lodge, and a cafeteria. The pre-race pasta dinner isn’t an add-on $15 but instead is part of the entry fee. Horton is an entertainer and he puts on a show talking about the race, giving out door prizes, and doing a good time motivating fellow-crazies for the race to come.
For us the pre-race was nearly as exciting and tiring as the race itself. David encouraged us to sell Julie’s books at the race and sang praises for them to the crowd of runners at the pre-race meal. We set up shop and sold quite a few books and had fun talking with many folks about running and long distance hiking.
While there were bunkhouses 20 feet from the start line which we’d paid to stay in, Horton had room at a smaller cabin nearby so Julie and I had a room to ourselves. Not that it mattered much because neither of us slept well, primarily because we were actually a bit nervous for this race. We had been in the spotlight all day having been talked up for our writing and our running (I was seeded 4th and Julie 8th).
The race started promptly at 6:30 am just after we all sang the National Anthem a ccapella together. It was still dark so I started with my headlamp. While it was supposed to get into the mid-40’s with sun during the day, it was in the 20’s at the start so I wore a wind jacket over my t-shirt and arm sleeves, along with my shorts and calf sleeves.
My plan was to go out with the lead group and be competitive as best I could without doing too much too early for fear of blowing up. We had a half mile uphill road climb to start and then it was onto the trails. It took me a bit to get my footing as a pack of 12 or so runners stuck together up front early. It was a good pace for me, comfortably hard, as my body and mind adjusted to what was being asked of it. My hamstring, which had been aching since the Groundhog Marathon in the snow last week, began sending warning signs to my brain within the first few minutes of the race and never let up the entire 33 miles. It altered my stride a bit and definitely played into my race strategy when a couple guys broke away from the pack early. I decided to stay with the bigger group and cautiously monitor my sore left leg.
We developed a good rhythm as the sun came up and the generally flat course proved good for my natural racing abilities. I ran comfortably behind a group of guys that largely knew each other. We joked a bit here and there and kept a consistent effort throughout the first loop. Many of them carried bottles, while I relied on the aid stations for fluids. I skipped the first two because I didn’t want to lose the group but after twelve miles I stopped and slugged a glass of water (the only other cups out there were filled with soda), and grabbed a couple gels. From then on, I got in the habit of eating two gels every 4 miles and drinking a cup of water at most aid stations.
The course is a 16+ mile loop that we ran like an out and back course, running clockwise first and then turning around to run counter-clockwise back. An advantage (or potential disadvantage) is that we see everyone in the race and pass everyone. Thankfully everyone behind us was courteous and gave our chase group (now with 4 runners chasing the lead guy) plenty of room as we headed out for the second lap. At this point I knew I was with Sam and Frank (local favorites), and Keith (world record holder for fastest marathon run in flip-flops, ~2:47). It was a really good group and I felt calm and comfortable trailing them. We hit a couple steep climbs between 16 and 20 and there the group started breaking up. Shortly before 20 I broke away and surged to the next aid station knowing I needed to stop to drink water. However, I managed to get a good gap on the other guys as I hurried out of the aid station. It was during this stretch that I opened it up and worked pretty hard. I didn’t want to get run down and I found out I actually started cutting into the front runner’s 8 minute lead.
But after 25 miles, I was at the point of simply maintaining my pace. I was able to run each of the last three segments faster than on the way out and I ran negative splits for the two loops. I gladly crossed the finish line in 3:51 after taking a tumble on the final section of trail before hitting the final half mile road run into the finish. Thankfully I only had a sore hand and a little bit of a bloody knee as a result.
Best part was that I was able to immediately go to my cabin, shower, and lay down on my bed in my sleeping bag for 15 minutes or so while my mind and body recovered a bit. I then went back out to cheer on the finishers and look for Julie.
The Holiday Lake experience wasn’t over yet though because runners came in for the next four hours and all the while, a pot luck put on by the runners was going on in the cafeteria. We chatted it up with the runners, sold some more books, and enjoyed the sunny day in the woods.
As things wrapped up, we headed back to Horton’s and spent the evening with him and his wife Nancy. And what did he want to do after an exhausting experience of putting on an ultra marathon? We sat and watched a movie about mountain biking the Continental Divide, pausing the film throughout so we could talk about everything that goes into such an adventure. Similarly, Julie and I have immediately begun looking forward, thinking about what adventures will be next (a month in Bangkok???). But looking back, the Holiday Lake 50k was definitely a memorable and positive experience. Thanks to everyone involved; the ultra community is filled with wonderful, amazing people and we’re really glad to be part of it.