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Ultra Running with Jen – Elizabeth Furnace 50K Report

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Wrapped up another weekend of running by finishing the Elizabeth Furnace 50k on Saturday, March 11th. This is fat ass style race, similar to the Reverse Ring, where there is no race fee required to enter. All they ask is you contribute some water, pop, chips/candy to the aid stations, and no whining is allowed.

Cold start to the day as I headed out.

Made sure to pack enough to drink. After the blunder a couple weeks ago with starting dehydrated, I wasn’t going to make that same mistake again.


(*Riding shotgun)

I love these races in that you can sit in your car until 5-10 minutes before the race and walk to the start at the end of the parking lot and drop off your contribution.


(Photo cred: Travis Bertram)

But having the sun up helped. We started at 7am, crossed the parking lot, and started up toward Signal Knob as we did two weeks prior. I got in with a fast group, not wanting to get stuck hiking/talking this entire climb, which could happen with about twice as many starters versus at Reverse Ring. With a shorter race, I figured I could afford to go out a little faster, too.

Kept a steady pace of hiking/fast walking/running. I don’t want to condition myself to walk every uphill, so I make sure to do a few ‘pick ups’ and run about 5-10 steps and walk just as many.

Instead of continuing on the orange blazed trail, we picked up the Meneka Trail, which still had some snow from the day before.

I was in with a good group but kept my distance, and tried to move as quickly as possible. I was feeling good despite the faster than normal start. The trail had some rocks but was fairly runable. A mile later and we met up with the blue/orange trail and headed down for about 1.8 miles to the next turn.

I’m still not very comfortable with downhills, technical or not, but tried to keep moving at a consistent pace and avoid falling. Early on, while climbing Signal Knob, I kept dragging my feet over the rocks. A combination of tired and lazy, and all that kicking makes for sore feet later on. So I tried to stay light on the downhills and avoid falling, as always.

Picked up a new trail, pink blazed Sidewinder Trail, that was fun to run.

Connected with the purple blazed Mudhole Gap trail, which was 3.2 miles until the first aid station at mile 10.3.

The first 2 miles or so were on this fire road and a great chance to get in some running. Recently I’ve been trying to keep a certain pace per mile depending on the terrain I’m running. Flat, such as this, I try to average 12-15 min/mile. Downhill or rolling trails anywhere from 15-18 min/miles, and climbing I want to be at 18-22 min/mile. I was hitting 10:30 on this section, and within range on the lower end of my scale on other sections, so I was happy with my pacing thus far. I don’t wear a heart rate monitor, but just try to control my breathing. I also used this section to do some wrist and arm circles, open and close my hands as I tend to hold them in the same position and they get tired and this is a chance to get the blood flowing. So far I was able to keep swelling at bay, so that was a plus as well.

Came off the fire road and entered the trail again.

This was a very beautiful and serene section with a few stream crossings.

Despite the snow higher up, the trail was very dry, and this section is normally very muddy, hence the name of the trail. I had to get photographic proof of mud on the trail.

I also wanted to show you how we sometimes deal with mud on the course and construct steps around said mud..

In and out of the aid station with a refill of my hydration pack.

Picked up the orange blazed fire road that lead me to Powells Fort Camp, which was part of the RR course, so I know this trail well.

Luckily the climb is only half a mile before picking up the blue blazed Tuscarora Trail along the western ridge of the Massanutten Mountain (Three Top Mountain) for 3.5 miles.

I didn’t take too many pictures on this section due to its ruggedness, and I just wanted to focus on each step. However, the view to my left was amazing. Take my word for it. I did stop frequently to enjoy it, but wanted to keep moving.

Key reason for moving was I really didn’t like this section. I was able to pass a couple people and keep another runner in sight, but I didn’t know how long this stretch was and I hadn’t run it in years, and it frustrated me a bit not knowing when it would end. I had no points of reference to go off of, so I was hoping for a sign of sorts – be it a change in the foliage, the rockiness, or a noticeable descent, but it wasn’t there.

When I *finally* hit the downhill I figured there was about half a mile to the fire road. At this point I started to notice some pain in the bottom of my shin. I knew it had to do with either the new shoes I was wearing, the rocky terrain, the steep downhill, or a combination of all of them. I just wanted to be on that flat road.

Finally got there and immediately hit the bathroom. This section is a long gradual incline up to the Signal Knob overlook, which I ran down from at Reverse Ring.


(Obligatory overlook photo op)


(Trail from the overlook to Meneka)

Picked up Meneka Trail again, and this time I was by myself, which I preferred. I like having another runner ahead of me about 200m to spot or pace off of. I just don’t like anyone too close because I want to be able to see my own ‘lines’ over the rocks. What I mean by that is if I have someone 6-10′ in front of me, I feel like I have to run in their tracks. I don’t get to pick and choose where to land and I’m constantly running with my head down. In a way that’s good because I don’t have to think as much, but it might not be where *I* want to step. So having been on this section earlier I knew what to expect, and now that I didn’t have the pressure of other runners around me, I could run it however I wanted. I try to run north and south vs east-west over the rocks. I can see my own lines so I run straight ahead instead of side stepping around the rocks, which just wastes time and energy. The shin was feeling good, too.

Picked up the blue blazed Tuscarora Trail for 3.5 miles of fun down to the Elizabeth Furnace parking lot and the next aid station. I was still by myself and took no pictures as I decided at this point to race this race. I had finished Waterfall 50k in just over 9 hours, and I figured I could do this close to 8 hours. My dream time was sub 8 hours, so I was gunning for that. Since I’m not a strong downhill runner, I tried to focus on keeping my legs churning – short, quick, light steps made with purpose. That was my mantra.

I did pick my head up a few times as there’s a lot you miss when looking down. This was a section of the mountain I was running to (in a roundabout way), and it was quite the sight. The slow down for the photo op was worth it.


(Photo cred – Paul Encarnacion)

I lumbered into the aid station, mile 21.8. Grabbed a refill on water, some PBJ squares, and wolfed down some fresh perogies. Those bad boys were legit and hit the spot! Also met up with the runner I spent a lot of time with at Reverse Ring, and left the aid station just behind him.


(Time out of the aid station. Note the size of my hand. Puffiness under control.)

This next series of photos I call “this is why I don’t take selfies” selfies.

(I have food on my face!!)


(The non-nonchalant ‘am I taking the picture or is someone else taking the picture’ picture)

Botts Trail, a nice mile jaunt along Passage Creek. Also, the calm before the ‘shit gets real’ storm.

(Photo cred – Diane Behm)

Pink blaze = Sherman Gap trail = “shit gonna get real, you just wait!”

I had to stop about a mile in and use the restroom again. My stomach was cramping a little and not happy with something I ate last night or the gels from throughout the day, so I stopped eating those. I had some concentrated powdered mix I sipped on the rest of the way. I lost sight of my pacer post-bathroom break, but I wasn’t worried. For as poor of a downhill runner I might be, I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my climbing. All those squats, lunges, split squats, and step ups have paid off.

“The Climb”


(Looking behind across Fort Valley)


(The start of the last, steep half mile climb)


(And more up. The last half mile was fairly steep. You can see the blue shirt of a runner in front of me up a little ways).

I was grinding this section. Head down. Grinding. My pace dropped to 24 min/mile, but I wasn’t worried. I was happy to see the white shirt of my friend just ahead of the blue shirt. I was making good time.

I was also happy to reach the top of the climb. The Sherman Gap trail meets up with the orange blazed trail I ran two weeks prior in the same direction for Reverse Ring. I also ran this 9 mile loop (from the parking lot) in the opposite direction about 4 weeks ago, so I had my points of reference. I also had the white shirt not far away from me, and we were moving. I was good to go. I knew it was a couple miles until reaching the section of trail that drops off to the right of the ridge line. I started checking off my reference points. Hit the two sets of stone steps and I know I’m near the end of this section. Check. I feel the wind pick up again and I know I’m coming out from behind the ridgeline, and there’s only a quarter mile until Shawl Gap trail and the final descent. Check.


(Photo cred – Diane Behm)

Boom!

During Reverse Ring, I (wrongly) gave myself 45 minutes to get from this point to the finish – it took me 1:15. Now, I was 7:20 into the race. It was cold, but the sun was shinning, and I hadn’t been on my feet that long (relative to when I reached this point in RR, ~20:30 into the race), so I was ready to finish.

At this point my pacer was gone. He dropped the hammer and took off. I was able to fall behind another runner who paced us through all the twists and turns and switchbacks back down to the Elizabeth Furnace parking lot and aid station. My knees were bugging me so I was fine where I was and didn’t feel the need to pass him.

We reached the lot at 7:55. What a difference fresh legs and daylight makes when trying to navigate trails. With about 3/4 mile to go, finishing under 8 hours wasn’t going to happen, so finishing as close to 8 hours was the next best thing. The runner and I chatted about the day, previous and upcoming races. He kept asking if he was holding me up or if I wanted to pass, and I declined. He carried us up to that point, and if I wanted to pass him I would’ve done it earlier in the race. At this point, this was going to be my first finish at Elizabeth Furnace, and coming in at 8:05 vs 8:07 didn’t make much of a difference to me.

My watch time above, but actual chip (there’s no chip) finish time was 8:07.
And a non-puffy hand. *thumbs up emoji*

I met up with Andrew at the finish, my unofficial pacer today and at Reverse Ring, and chatted about the day. Grabbed some grub and hung out at the finish line, cheering in the other runners.


(Chili over pasta. Hit the spot)

I had first attempted this race in 2009 and only completed 21.5 miles – choosing not to go to the 2nd aid station and instead heading right into the finish area. Honestly, I was scared to attempt the climb up Sherman Gap. So this is not only a great sense of accomplishment in finally completing this race, but it really boosts my confidence even more going into my final two races, the 50 and 100 miler. My pacing was great, and my nutrition and hydration were better than they were at Reverse Ring. I have some aches and issues to figure out with my shin, knees, and sore toes (pick my feet up when I run and don’t kick the rocks.. duh!), but I feel really good with my running right now.

I can’t say enough about the Virginia Happy Trail Running Club (VHTRC) and all the volunteers for this race, and all the races they put on. Despite the shinning sun, it was windy and COLD, and they were standing around for a LONG time. Major props to them.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far. I appreciate all the questions and comments I’ve been receiving about this series, so thank you! Keep following along as I’ll have posts in the coming weeks about my recovery, training – physical and mental, and whatever else I can think of.