Thanks for visiting my blog. This is where I document and share all of my running adventures with my friends and fellow runners. The good, the bad, and the unquestionably painful. All for your entertainment! Enjoy!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Virgil Crest Ultras: It Ain't for Sissies

"It Ain't for Sissies"

I wanted to share this quote because I think it really captures the spirit of ultra running.

"Endurance: It is the spirit which can bear things, not simply with resignation, but with blazing hope. It is the quality which keeps a man on his feet with his face to the wind. It is the virtue which can transmute the hardest trial into glory because beyond the pain it sees the goal."
- Anonymous

And I wanted to share this quote because it summarizes my reality as the Virgil Crest 100 approached...

"The sky is not the limit...I am."
- T.F. Hodge

Like a lot of endurance runners, I sometimes fail to recognize that there are limits to the body and mind. As my race approached I slowly realized that I didn't feel mentally prepared. I hadn't given the 100 mile race enough consideration, planning and most importantly, respect. My body was relatively fine, but a little battered from my recent Leadville 100 finish.

After a lot of internal debate, and in a rare moment of maturity and clarity, I decided to change my registration to the 50 mile race option for Virgil Crest. I was also aware that I had the Oil Creek 100 looming in the immediate future and that was a race I really wanted to run well at, so it became obvious I was making the right decision.

My greatest regret was having to inform Lou D'Onofrio, who had planned to pace me for the 100. He's also running the Oil Creek 100 and was hoping for a final long training run before that event. I let Lou know about my decision and to my relief, he took it in stride and was very gracious. As it worked out, he was able to register for the 50k version of the race, which would be run on Sunday following my event. We would all travel up together and still have a great weekend.

The 50 and 100 mile races started at 6:00 AM on Saturday, which means we get to run in the dark for the first few miles. This is an out and back course, 25 miles each way. This distance is accompanied by 10,000 feet of climbing. The 100 mile race repeats this out and back course. I know...it sounds awesome!

I was unusually calm on race morning because the pressure of the 100 miler was lifted off my shoulders. I actually enjoy the 50 mile distance and am very comfortable with it. 100 milers are great, but running the 50 allows me the luxury of having dinner while sitting down, and a shower and a warm bed on the same day of the race. 100's dictate that you won't sleep, you'll miss at least 3 meals, and you'll feel like crap for several days. Sometimes it's worth it. Sometimes it isn't.

Before the start

 It was cool, but pleasant before the race started. The 6:00 AM start time meant we would be wearing headlamps for the first few miles. I was amped up and ready to go!

We're off!

Our first aid station was 4.4 miles down the trail. I carried a single bottle for this race and had it filled with water at the start.

The RD had these great signs all over the course. The quotes were great.

The race started out on very runnable trail and stayed that way for a long time. I actually began to second guess the reports I heard about the difficulty of the course. We were sailing over smooth trail, laughing, chatting and having fun. There were some rolling hills, but nothing to get worried about. 

New York countryside in the fall

 We rolled into the Gravel Pit aid station and I loaded my bottle with GU Brew and headed out right away. Shortly after leaving the aid station, the trails got tighter, more technical and steeper. We had a lot of downhill in this section, but the uphill was steep and daunting.

Headed to Lift House 5

I wasn't "racing", I was running this race with an eye toward a solid effort, but not so solid that I could get injured or too fatigued. I tried to keep a fun pace going, and so far, that was working well.

Coming into Lift House 5

Lift House 5 is where the race gets interesting. This is the alpine loop that takes us up to the top of the ski slopes, down the backside, then leads us through all the ski runs before coming back over the top to rejoin the trail. 

We're actually running straight up the Black Diamond slopes and bailing off the other side. These slopes are steep and devastating. 

Note to ALL trail runners: When your course is littered with chairlifts, it's a solid sign that you've entered a really tough race. 

We were NOT allowed to use the chair lifts

This section of the course was probably steeper and more relentless than anything I've ever run. This was absolute lung searing, leg crushing, chin scraping brutality.

Heading up!

Lift House 5 took the wind out of my sails. But I was able to keep a positive attitude by reminding myself that I would be doing this TWICE...not FOUR TIMES like the 100 milers! Poor bastards!

After finishing the ski slopes, we were off to the Rock Pile aid station.

The trail to Rock Pile is very tough with several long, steep technical climbs. Some of the hills have ropes tied to trees so we can pull ourselves up and lower ourselves down. There is virtually nothing flat in this section of trail. The footing was very technical and required a lot of caution in several areas.

It was right about here that it began to rain. It was a nice, light, cooling rain initially. Then waves of heavy rain started to pound us. The trails got very muddy, very quickly and added to the level of difficulty along the course.

View of Virgil

After getting out of the Rock Pile aid station we were headed to the turnaround at Daisy Hollow Road. The trail leveled off a bit and became more reasonable. It was still ridiculous by any normal standard, but more manageable nonetheless.

It continued to rain pretty hard and I knew the trail conditions were going to deteriorate quickly. Another random smile crossed my face as I basked in the joy of my decision to only run 50 miles.

Side note: I catch myself saying "only 50 miles" a lot. I feel it's important to note that 50 miles is a hell of a long way to run.

I had been taking it pretty easy and planned to evaluate my condition at Daisy Hollow and decide how hard to push on the way back. My hamstrings were tight, but otherwise, I felt pretty good. I was going through a rapid series of high points and low points, but I was managing them well. So far, so good.

Coming into Daisy Hollow

Daisy Hollow Aid Station

After getting some fuel and a kiss from Jo, I turned and headed for the trail, back to the Rock Pile!

This is so true

On my way to the Rock Pile, I was feeling good and started passing a few runners. This section is less technical and I was having fun with it. But I knew it was just a matter of time before I would be revisiting those damn ski hills...

I made excellent time getting back to Lift House 5. I was feeling really good, but I knew the steep hills were going to sap me of my strength.

I'm actually laughing in this picture because the upcoming section is THAT ridiculous. I either have to laugh or cry, and I hate crying in front of strangers.

Coming into Lift House 5

Starting this ascent after 36 miles of hard, mucky, technical single track is not an easy task. My legs were feeling pretty beat up by this point, but I was fueled by the fact that I was so close to the finish.

 Headed UP, UP, UP!!!

I struggled through the alpine loop again. I had long since resigned myself to the fact that this was going to be my slowest 50 miler...EVER. I was at peace with my race and I was having fun.

I headed back out onto the trail, knowing the hardest climbs were now behind me. Nothing ahead would be easy, but at least I knew the major suffering was over. I continued to struggle with a few more mental and physical ups and downs, but I was feeling pretty good and the race was still fun, which is what really matters.

Coming back into the Gravel Pit

Once I got to the Gravel Pit aid station, I knew the rest of the trail would be pretty runnable. I was happy to be nearly finished and I was feeling good. I was in and out of the aid station quickly, and headed for the finish.

I had run a conservative race and had a lot left in the tank, so I started to push the pace a bit and passed several runners headed back to Hope Lake. I would catch a glimpse of a runner in the woods and slowly reel them in. It kept me focused and motivated on my way to the finish. I was having a blast!

I finally caught a glimpse of the lake and could hear the muffled sounds of the finish line. I pushed along and made my way to the finish chute.

Finishing the hardest race EVER

The Virgil Crest 50 mile race has a 16.5 hour cutoff for a reason. This is just a really slow and punishing trail. I crossed the finish line in 11:23:10, which is well over an hour slower than my previous slowest 50.

I think the elevation profile illustrates a lot about this race.

Initially, I was a little bummed about my finish time, but after analyzing my split times, I think it was a solid effort. I wanted to keep a nice controlled pace and avoid injury and unnecessary fatigue. I felt strong and healthy at the finish, so I'm happy with the results.

Jo and I agreed to stick around and help crew for Lou in his 50k. I really wanted to help him any way I could because he had cleared his schedule to pace for me, then I screwed up his plans. On top of that, he's just a really great guy and a fantastic friend.

The 50k version of this race is no joke either. It boasts 6300' of vertical gain and has a 10 hour cutoff. The course is designed to maximize the toughest sections of the 50 mile course.

A view of the 50k profile.

Jo and I took all of Lou's supplies to the Lift House 5 aid station and warmed ourselves by the campfire while we waited for the first runners to arrive. We were in conversation with other crews when I saw a runner way off in the distance. After a short debate, we realized that it was Lou and he's leading the race.

Now...I love Lou and I know he's a talented runner, but to be honest, it hadn't really occurred to me that he would be leading the race. We were caught off guard and hustled to get everything ready.

I ran out and met Lou, grabbed his bottle and led him into the aid station. I mixed his drink while Jo helped him get rid of extra layers and get a new shirt. When the stop was finished, he was headed up the ski slopes for the first real torture of his race. He was in and out in under 1 minute.

Lou coming into Lift House 5

Then we waited for the 2nd place runner. And waited...and waited...It was 8 minutes before the next runner came into the aid station!

We continued to watch 50k runners cycle through the aid station as I kept an eye on my watch. I had run this alpine loop yesterday and had an idea how long it would take Lou to finish it. As time approached, I headed down the trail and waited for him to come off the mountain. 

Running Lou back into Lift House 5

We got him into the aid station, mixed him up a fresh bottle and got him fed in less than a minute. In the 50k, the runners immediately turn around and go BACK UP the same alpine loop that they just ran. I ran out with Lou and discussed his lead. He looked great and had a solid pace.

Watching Lou head back up the mountain.

After sending him off, we waited once again for the next runner. This time it was 11 minutes before he came into the aid station. Lou was spreading the lead and still going strong.

After finishing his last run through the alpine loop, we fueled him up and sent him out of the Lift House 5 aid station for the last time. He was now 20 miles into the race and had stretched his lead to 15 minutes.

Jo and I headed to the Gravel Pit aid station to help him through his final stop. I went down the trail and met Lou as he topped out near the aid station. I grabbed his bottle, gave him an update on his lead, and ran him into the aid station.

Coming into the last aid station

Lou was looking strong, but I could see he was wearing down a bit. He had kept up a blistering pace and was close to the course record. He was also preoccupied with the gap between him and the 2nd place runner. I assured him he was going to win if he could keep upright and maintain a decent pace. At this point, the next runner would have to improve his pace by 3 minutes per mile just to catch a glimpse of Lou.

Out of curiosity, we waited around for the next runner before heading to the finish. Lou now had a 17 minute lead.

Jo and I headed to the finish line and anxiously waited for Lou. He eventually came into view on the other side of the lake and was running a solid pace. From our vantage point, we can see the runners for about a half mile. I kept scanning the trail behind Lou for signs of a threat to his win. It never materialized.

Lou barely missed the course record, but won the race in a very convincing manner. It was an amazing race to watch and we were all pretty excited.

Lou D'Onofrio winning the Virgil Crest 50k

Lou took the lead right away and never gave it up. These types of victories are rare and it was a very solid performance. Ironically, Lou signed up for the 50k on Thursday. He had only planned to have an easy run while pacing me in the 100 miler, yet he came out on short notice and destroyed this course. That says a lot about the talent in this man.

Celebrating after the win!

My temporary disappointment after deciding to drop down the 50 miler was completely overshadowed by what an amazing weekend we all had. I got to run a very tough race and ended up really enjoying the course. I got in a great training run that I really needed and I'll be better prepared for the Oil Creek 100. And we got to be a part of a defining race with a very good friend. 

The entire weekend at Virgil Crest defines "Epic" in my mind. 

It's time to enter into a period of rest and mental preparation as Oil Creek approaches. Maybe that race will give me a new perspective on "Epic"!

Happy Trails!


  1. Congrats! There is a lot of tough trail running to be found in Pa and Southern NY.

    1. Thanks Brian. I've run a lot of my toughest races in this region. Running out west is pretty amazing too, but the east coast ultras are equally amazing and challenging. Running through the hardwood forests in the fall is pretty tough to beat!