High Bridge was on my race-to-run list since after finishing the Eastern Divide in 2018, but things got in the way ever since as usual, so after three years, I was finally free to go down to Pamplin, Virginia, to run this 50K, the High Bridge Ultra. The race is part of the trail race series by the Trail Adventure, and I have run all of them but the High Bridge (HBU). The other races for the curious are Eastern Divide (EDU), Old Glory (OGU), and Lake Ridge (LRU @ Lake Claytor). I might have reported on those at some point.
I am least prepared for this event than any other races I have done. I could wing a 5K or 10K without training but to show up at an ultra unprepared is asking for a lot of pain. Physically, I think I am decently fit, as I usually could run a marathon or two every weekend, but I had been slacking the last two weeks on my training. It is kind of crazy to do a 50K as a first run after such long break.
I could of course not show up to the race and not run it, like I did the week before for a 10 miler run.
Those who know me, giving up on a race is almost nonexistent in my lexicon. So, even though I was not that enthusiastic about driving the 4 hours to Pamplin, I got into the car Friday night and drove down and camped out at a nearby park. Not that I couldn’t affort-affort a decent hotel/motel stay but it would hurt the pocket and I am feeling the pinch. A camping spot costs like $15-25 and with inflation going on now, I started see even the cheapest motels are costing $130-140 a night, so camping easily won out.
Pre-race. Due to many things happening, I did not arrive at the camp until midnight. I am not unfamiliar by now in setting up camp quickly without in the dark. So a few minutes later, I had a proper tent set up. If it was not for there being a chance of rain, I might even sleep under the stars. I could roll and sleep anywhere now, bugs not withstanding. I did feel better though to have a tent.
I set my alarm for 4:25. This time I said there would be no over sleeping like I did at the Eau Claire race. You learn a bit at each race and try to improve from it. Last race for me was the problem of sleeping and waking up. When the alarm went off, I forced myself up this time, though I was drowsy, I quickly followed the plan to pack up. Normally, it would take me an hour to pack up, but I told myself, I don’t have the luxury this time. I needed to leave the camp by 5 am and get to the race by 6. I even skipped the bathroom and breakfast. I had some munchies to chew while driving to the race site though don’t remember what I ate by now. I did this time around stopped by a convenience store the night before on the way down and I had brought bread, cereal, and milk with me. I didn’t eat them though. I remember in Eau Claire I didn’t have food because Mc Donalds were not open. This time, I was prepared.
My morning haziness was quickly gone by time I got to the package pickup. I was greeted by familiar faces. I ran with this organization a few time, with the most recent race at Lake Claytor last month. They said, there is no way to not remember me after supporting me almost 24 hours that day (there were only like 10 of us in that race). I received my bib. We took the bus from Pamplin to the real starting place, somewhere 30+ miles to the east. The race starting location was not the same as our bib pickup location by design. This was a point to point race. 31.1 miles on the High Bridge Trail. We were to run back to our cars.
It was my first time on the course. There were about 40-50 of us, not that many but maybe a third of us were first time running an ultra. I fondly recalled when I did my first ultra. I was no stranger to this distance by now though. Even without a recent run, I was not afraid to tackle this distance. As long as I can get to mile 26, it is a sure finish.
We started on time. There was not much fanfare. 8 o clock came and the race director said go and we were off. The trail is wide, and can fit maybe 5-6 of us side by side. Mostly, I was running by myself. The morning was cloudy and warm. There was a chance of rain, but it never came until long after I finished. The trail was on a hard compact limestone surface. It felt like running on concrete. Initially, the hard ground did not bother me, but about halfway through, my knees and calves started to feel the pounding. I had to run off the trail a few time to rest my feet.
The course was marked by every half mile by trail markers. So I was much more focused on my pace than in any other races. You could in theory have a very controlled run.
A fellow runner from a previous race recognized me. We ran the 12 hour event at Lake Claytor a month ago. She and I had pretty much the same pace. There were no official pacers for the race. So I used her to gauge the proper pace to run. But by halfway, she slowed down and I lost her.
In my mind, having done the Eau Claire Marathon, I know how fast I should be running. experience for that race was still fresh on my mind and was easily transferred to this one. I knew I was going way too fast. However, everyone around me were doing 9 mins or less. So we were running extremely fast for this event.
pacing: I told myself to run at 12 min per mile or slower, for this event since my ever fastest 31 miles was 6 hours. I know I was not planning to surpass my best time.
I added in a 30 seconds walk at the end of every mile to slow down my pace. I told myself I would keep doing that for as long as I could. The race director had warned us that this race would be deceptively easy, because the monotonous pace would cause us to run too fast. It means there would be no chance for our muscles to take a break — unless we are disciplined to control our pace.
By halfway, I already found I couldn’t maintain my pace and I was easing off on the pedal. I still forced myself though to make a 12 minutes mile. Pretty soon, that was unsustainable either. I started counting how many more miles to the next aid station.
Mile 20 seemed extremely far. I hit the wall again and again before then. Pretty sure, the first wall was somewhere at mile 16. Then 17, and 18. So I don’t even remember how I got through to mile 20. Mile 20 is important because it is 2/3 of the race in and to me it is more meaningful than the 50% mark. You know how after halfway mark, every step is one step closer to the finish. However, I want to consider how second half is usually harder than the first half. So I prefer setting the 66% as a mental halfway point, that every step I take should be easier than the first 66%. I must have passed through an aid station by then, but I can’t recall now. There was another one at mile 24. Then one more at mile 29. My concerntration was taking a toil. Runner delusion I called it.
Mile 26 was my next goal. I know if I reached it, there would be no way I would not going to finish. I walk if have to in order to finish.
My concern was not so much of not able to finish the race but how my body feels during it. I know for 100 mile run, I will be doing this like 4x. So I am supposed to be still fresh after doing a marathon distance. So during the run, I was comparing my breathing, and how my body feels and so I was pretending I was doing a 100 miler instead of a 30 mile race. Did it work? After 26, miles, I was just trying to survive, and I was no longer pretending it was a 100 mile race. It didn’t work.
Ending. Mile 29 would be the last aid station. It was also the farest one apart from the previous one. The race director had warned us about this. For me, it was indeed very far especially when you are tired. I was mostly walking by now, 2 mins of walk for every 15-30 seconds of running. It took eternity before I arrived. After reaching it, the finish line was not too far away.
A redeeming feature for this race for me was the final two miles on the road. I love and romanticize running on a single lane country road all the time because we don’t have that luxury or the deprivation in the city where I live (because we have the money to have sidewalks and bike trails and all the good stuffs of city living). My fellow runners think this is the most dangerous part of the race because we faced oncoming traffic with cars going as fast as 45-55 miles flying down the one lane road. Sometimes there were not enough room on the shoulder either. You pray hard the car sees you and would slow down. Others didn’t share my thrill of running with cars. They think this part of the race was totally unnecessary dangerous because they could have shifted the start line 2 miles back and we would finish it before we get to the road portion. But I love it because it got us out of the repetiveness of the rail to trail section. It was exciting playing frogger. It was really a short section (and most of the traffic were runners who had finished or family members/friends of runners). I think it was worth it.
Is the race worth running? Yes, the race description from the race site is accurate. It is a good first ultra for the uninitiated runners. Because the course has very little of hills. And the direction to stay on the course is easy. It was just one straight way. The course passed the High Bridge, the race namesake, which is considered the highest and longest bridge (I think for railroad) of that particular era. So those who ran got a bit of history to see. High Bridge is worth the visit for those who are into history and landmarks.
Small town. This Pamplin is tiny like any Virginian towns! There are like one or two stores. Some runners might also use this time to check out the more famous nearby towns such as Appomattox or Farmville. Aside, I can see why or how General Lee and the Confederate troops were being helmed in/driven to this remote place and ultimately surrendering nearby at Appomattox. Today, this region is still just as remote and not easy to get to (for lack of interstates). You get to experience what small towns in Virginia are like. Farmville, which we passed midway in the race, is probably the place to stay and visit for the out of town runners (unfortunately I didn’t do any sight seeing). A few people drove in the morning of from far away places. They had to be up like 2-3 AM. Or be like me, camp out in a nearby state park!
Critique. A few said this is a once and done race. I agree. While High Bridge, the actual bridge is a historical landmark and deserves visiting, it doesn’t have enough draw to come back year after year. And the race was not truly a trail race. The ground was too hard. Those planning to do it, should treat it like a road race.
I don’t regret running it though. I found it interesting and happy I did it.
Out take. I ran it because I wanted to jumpstart my running again and also it was on my schedule. I think and hope it helped me to shake out my final preparation for an upcoming 100 miler. It did get my mind ready for that race, but in term of nutrition/gears and pacing, it was not an ideal shakeout run – because I came under prepared. It was not an ideal run for trophy either. It was more like a super long run … . Other than that, I loved the run.