Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Swarmy of Northern Virginia - My DHRT 50K Race Report

August 4, 2018

Massive Kudzu vines along the trail. 
[Yes that haze eventually lifted]

An Ultra I Should Be Able To Finish

In my quest to return to the fun of ultra running, I decided that I needed to find a race of ultra length that was within my current fitness level (fat & slow). I had read about the Dahlgren Heritage Rail Trail 50K because of elite runner Michael Wardian's exploits there. Not only has he won the race, but he put it on the ultra running map by setting the record for the fastest 50K run on a dirt trail. Billed as flat, 100% "runnable" and falling perfectly on my running calendar, I was in. The race is limited to 200 runners and I saw that its biggest year had 89 finishers, so it also fit the grass roots race definition that I prefer. No crazy hype, just a bunch of folks who want to go for a long run, get timed and maybe get a nice t-shirt.

It's Run On A Rails Trail?

The Dahlgren Heritage Rail Trail 50K is run on the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail. (I've got no clue why there's a disparity in the names.) The trail is the remains of an old railroad bed that was opened July 1st 1942 to move guns and munitions to the nearby Navy Proving Grounds in Dahlgren [today known as Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division] during WWII and it was abandoned after the war. 

This trail creation came with struggles dating back to the railways original inception. In 1941 the owner of Ferry Farm [George Washington's birthplace] pulled the survey stakes vowing that the railroad would not cross the historic property. The Vice President of General Motors and owner of the nearby Sherwood Forest Plantation also successfully blocked the railroad from his property. Then there's the African American Little Ark Baptist Church, the tracks ran right through their cemetery and no one blocked that intrusion. Hmm...discrimination maybe? 

"The cemetery at Little Ark Baptist Church. 

The unmowed section represents the tracks' former location."

Photo by Dawn S. Bowen, University of Mary Washington | UMW · Department of Geography 

Author of Building a Trail and Connecting a Community The Establishment of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail.

In recent years the rails trail creation was plagued by the NIMBY population and their concerns of what the trail would bring to their back yards. Hopefully those challenges are all in the past for this rail trail. Living in Central Pennsylvania with numerous rails trails around the area with seemingly more popping up every year, it's hard to understand the resistance to this project.

Yes it's billed as a rails trail, but don't get the idea that it's some well groomed trail of crushed stone. The DRHT is actually quite rugged in places. In the race director's note he mentions "look up, fall down" and I can attest to that. At the start of the trail, for a short distance there are actually still tracks present. Along the entire length of the trail were rocks, roots and some railroad ties still poking up out of the ground. Wide enough to drive a care in some places while down to narrow single track in others. One section really stood out as the hills and trees along there were covered completely with Kudzu vines. It's not the typical rails trail and I was delighted to realize that I wouldn't be running some monotonous paved multi-use trail with playgrounds and ball fields every few miles.


Travel to Fredericksburg was quite painful with traffic jams due to accidents starting as early as Harrisburg and then the parking lot labeled "Rt. 95 South" all combined to turn my 3 1/2 hour trip into 5 hours. With the extended travel time I ended up being 25 minutes late (missed) the mandatory trail brief with the race director. Luckily he was still there and I was at least able to pick up my race packet. [Note - on the trip home I was stopped by another traffic accident near the identical spot near Thurmont Maryland] I hustled over to my hotel and began the hunt for supper. The internet steered me towards the historic downtown and Spencer Devon Brewing for my pre-race burger and beer. I had no clue that it was Restaurant Week in Fredericksburg, but it sure seemed like all of Northern Virginia knew about it and they might've all been there. The brewer told me this is such a popular event that people visit from Washington, DC and Richmond. The sidewalks of town were jammed and so was parking. The town looked packed with historic and cultural things to see, but I now considered myself running late so I'll have to return some day to see it. I had the Red Goat Burger, outstanding and the Spencer Devon brews were spot on as well.

A Beer Hunter's Paradise

With dinner done and a quick stop at Total Wine & More to do some Virginian beer hunting*, I was back to the room to finish assembling a couple of drop bags and crawl in bed for a 4am wake up.


*beer hunt·ing  
bir/ /hən(t)iNG/
noun: hunting; noun: plain beer hunting; plural noun: plain beer huntings

1. the activity of hunting locally brewed craft beer especially for sampling and enjoyment of beer unavailable in one's home area.

2. the activity of hunting game while drinking beer - definitely not recommended and most likely against the law in your region.                                                                                                                 

Welcome To The Jungle

I was up earlier than normal on the morning of the race. I had set an alarm for 4am and I woke up looking at the room clock showing 4:03 and I was mad my alarm hadn't gone off, but happy I hadn't over slept. About 30 minutes later while eating breakfast, my alarm went off and now I realized the hotel clock was about 35 minutes fast...oh well so much for that half hour of sleep.

Leaving the hotel, I checked the weather and it looked as though the temperature was listed twice. It was 73°/73° and with closer examination I realized that second temperature was the dew point. Stepping outside it felt as if it was raining and it wasn't. The air was nasty.

Before coming to the race I chatted with local ultra running buddy Rob Tidwell, he and I have run a couple of ultras together and if I have a Virginia question, he's my contact.  He made mention about the flies on the trail. I paid little attention to that comment until hearing the race briefing which included an in depth description of these pesky/painful Deer Flies that inhabit the area. About that same time a race volunteer approached and helped me to stick a deer fly patch to my hat. Back home our forests are full of large Horse Flies this time of year. These flies were smaller, but apparently still had a painful bight.

Still having a few minutes before we started I went back to the Jeep and applied a generous dose of Deep Woods Off. I also stashed Deep Woods Off towelettes in my race vest for reapplication later.That stuff is horrible [toxic] and I've learned to hold my breathe while spraying it, but it seems to keep most bugs away.

About two miles into the run, a woman running near me pointed out that she had six Deer Flies on her tape. I checked my tape and I only had one. The thing was tiny and sure enough it was stuck like glue to that magical Deerfly Patch. I looked again about three miles later and my tape was gone. I was sweating so badly I guess it lost its adhesiveness so I unknowingly littered.

My Boco Gear Ambassador Technical Trucker Hat
Equipped With A Deerfly Patch
With my tape gone, I was on my own with the flying biting pests. Surprisingly I really wasn't bothered by them. I saw plenty of runners around me though who looked like Ninjas, Karate chopping the air to keep the flies away while I ran long un-accosted by the swarm. Deep Woods Off  seemed to be doing the job.

"Air You Can Wear"

For me the true swarm was the heat and humidity. The air was bad from the beginning, but something changed around mile 9 and it suddenly got even worse. The sweat dump was now at a maximum level and my only adjective for breathing was "tight". The extra thick air lasted about two miles and at mile 11, just as we passed under Rt. 218, it was as if someone had opened the window and the air went from awful back to just "bad". In the dim light of morning, I really couldn't see the surroundings, but on the return trip the sun was out. Now I could see that the stretch of trail East of Rt. 218 had low lying swampy water on both sides and the oppressive humidity was definitely ratcheted upward with that water around. The good air side of the bridge had no swamp, but was lined with open fields just beyond tall trees.

I had stashed a drop bag at the two spots they were allowed. Rob couldn't run or come to the race that day, but I got to say hello to his daughter Becca volunteering at the 15.5 mile turn around. I dug in my drop bag to resupply and I also changed my soaking wet shoes, shirt and hat. Dry clothes, although short lived, on a hot humid day can feel awesome.

My trusty drop bags.

I've never been a fan of runners who do silly stuff during a race. The group of runners stopping in the middle of the trail to take a photo, runners with ear buds who have no idea you're there and trying to pass or worse, runners playing loud music from their smart phone; they're absolutely certain you wanted to hear Eye Of The Tiger. Well I was alone just after the turn around and I decided to do something goofy and I called Janice using the phone feature in Facebook Messenger. I wanted to say hello and let her know I was going good. At first we couldn't figure out the video part, but I eventually got to see her out on a walk with Mojo. I was hustling along the border of the cemetery on one side and cows and one enormous bull on the other side talking into my phone. For a brief moment it felt good to be one of those running goofballs. 

Keeping The Body Going

Janice couldn't come along to crew me on this trip so my run was semi-self supported. I wore my go-to Ultimate Direction race vest stocked with bottles of Pickle Juice along with ClifBar gels and chews. I carried two 600ml bottles full of Tailwind and I refilled them with water at aid stations . I also had little vials with pre-measured Tailwind in my drop bags, so at those points I was able to remix Tailwind.

Those are actually paint containers I found at a hobby store.
(Good luck getting them past TSA though.)

With the day's heat and humidity, cramping was a definite possibility. I lost count of the amount of little Pickle Juice bottles I drank to stay hydrated and cramp free. (I was also sure to share plenty of it as it always seems to cause conversation..."eewwww...pickle juice...does that stuff really work?")

I used so much Pickle Juice at this event, I was stoked to come home
 and find a resupply had been delivered while I was out of town.

I can't talk about keeping going without mentioning the volunteers on this course, they were a true boost on a nasty hot day. All of them were upbeat and extremely helpful.
  • I'm pretty sure his name was Neil, but the same guy who gave me Deer Fly Tape before the race was also at the turn around and he insisted on helping me and mixing my bottles. He reminded me I was still 45 minutes ahead of the cut off as I casually tied my shoes. I think he would've tied them had I let him. With his kind help I felt like I did have a crew. 
  • The nice lady at the first (and last) road crossing with the huge smile on her face, standing in the humidity of the morning and the blazing sun of the afternoon. 
  • All the volunteers who stuffed ice down the back of my shirt deserve some sort of award. Getting near me couldn't have been pleasant so I can't thank them enough, the ice was awesome. 
I made sure to thank all of them, especially on the return trip as the heat was cranked and their encouragement and support was priceless.

Vic the Race Director getting set to send
us on our journey in the long green tunnel.
(Pretty sure the person on the right is Rob's Daughter Emily)

Made It Back To The Jeep

My day on the Dahlgren Rail Heritage Trail was less running and more managing. I started out too fast, but luckily recognized it early and consciously slowed myself down. I kept my head at aid stations and used my drop bags wisely. (keeping my head in the game is usually Janice's job) I did find something to catch a toe on and launch a somersault. My graceful tumble included a thump to my head, but it wasn't enough to stop my day. 

I came to King George Virginia with very low expectations. I wasn't certain I could even finish, but I still decided on a goal just so I knew I was making progress on my return to fitness. I hoped that once I decided I felt good enough to run 31 miles, I would shoot for 7 hours as the day's benchmark. (I felt good enough to finish around mile 6 by the way) Every half mile there was a marker. Mile markers can make you insane (just go run the Laurel Highlands Ultra and you may understand), but for some reason the markers here were my friends and I played a simple mind game with them the whole second half of the run. Being an old rail bed, it's as straight as an arrow in places and when the finish line came into view it seemed to take forever to get there. I was surprised that I actually crossed the finish line under 7 hours (goal achieved).  I got to say hello to another of Rob's daughters Emily who was doing the timing. I asked her to please be sure tell her Dad I survived and I wasn't the caboose.

As I sat changing out of my soaking wet clothing I heard a woman say, "wow it's 91°" and then she said, "but at least it's only 85% humidity" and laughed.  I couldn't be happier that I survived those conditions and extremely happy knowing I had taken the next step in bouncing back from a bad patch.

While writing this blog post I learned that my next event, The Chiques Challenge had to be cancelled due to unsafe river levels, so my next adventure will be the Headwaters 50K in Mt. Shasta California. Can't wait for that trip!

Soaking wet, bloody & muddy.
The perfect end to a day.
#bocogear #picklejuicesport #zensah #ambassador