All 2010 Race Reports

Promise Land pre-run

10 April 2010

In preparation for the Promise Land 50K in a few weeks, I wanted to pre-run at least part of the course. The back half has some steep climbs (2000 feet up over about 3 miles). Yorktown doesn't have anything close to hills like that. I also find it an advantage to know part of the course. It helps me if I can recognize things as I run. I had hoped to get some local folks together but it didn't work out, and my own plans kept changing up until the last minute. Coordinating was becoming troublesome and my (mis)adventures getting there would have destroyed any meet-up plans anyway, as it turns out.

Google Maps said it'd take about 4.5 hours. I left the house at 6:00am and drove out. My plan was to park at Sunset Fields overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway. That's Aid Statoin 3 on the course, and has good parking anyway. There's a popular trail there down to Apple Orchard Falls.

I'm making good time and eventually find myself on smaller and smaller roads. Finally I start an ascent up Petite Gap road. The road then turns to gravel. This doesn't seem right, but I am moving up, and it does connect to the Blue Ridge Parkway at the top, so I drive on.

I pass a sign that city maintenance has ended. I have to take a few washed out sections at 1 mph. Then the road gets steep with severe switch backs. Guard rails? What guard rails? After 20 or so minutes I make it to the top. The Blue Ridge Parkway is right there... behind the locked gate. No! I'll find out later that this section of the Parkway is closed due to fires. Otherwise that might have worked. At least it was pretty.

There is a small parking area with a sign and everything so I turn around and drive back down Petite Gap. I later discover that this steep gravel road is part of the Hellgate 100K that takes place in December (I'm pretty sure it's this road anyway.) Runners run up it. Well, I'm not sure they run. It's pretty steep. I'd probably be walking.

I get back down the mountain (another 20+ minutes) and meander over to 501, then to some other road that hits the Parkway. These are at least paved, with white lines and signs and everything. Finally on the Parkway I'm moving along. I pass the James River (the lowest point of the Parkway at 600 some odd feet, the sign says). A few more miles and I have to stop. The Parkway is closed. A couple rangers are there and give me the bad news. I tell them I was trying to get to Sunset Fields. Is that still possible? Yes! That area isn't closed, but I'll have to drive out, around, back to the parkway, and approach it from the south. All told it's about 45 miles. The guy is nice enough to hand me a map and point it out. Thanks!

I've already burned an hour on my first closed road detour. Now I'm going to burn an hour on a second one. Oh well.

I finally make it to Sunset Fields around 11:45. There are a few cars there but not as many as I expected. I get prepped for my run. Mainly that involved in applying Deet to my legs/socks to avoid ticks, which I understand are prevalent in the area.

I'm working my Montrail trail shoes, running shorts, a long sleeve white shirt, and a hat. Temperatures are in the upper 50's or so. I wore my hydration vest (Nathan HPL #020) with just under 2 liters of water. In the various pockets I have my camera, jelly beans, a few maps of the run course, my Swiss Army knife, toilet paper, more deet, drivers license, a small stick of Body Glide, and a Clif bar.

Of course, I didn't end up using some of that stuff, but I wasn't sure how long this was going to take, nor have I ever hiked in the area before. I knew food/water was not available on the course except from the creeks, and I didn't want to drink that without sterilization of some kind.

I start down the trail. And it's down! I quickly come across the junction with the Appalachian Trail (AT). I recall seeing it on the map and take it. I was wondering if I would see any hikers on the AT, but did not. I only met a deer who had been in the middle of the trail and ran uphill a bit (not far!) to glare at me.

The AT was single track and pretty rocky. I managed to turn my ankle about a mile into the run. Walking on it was fine. Running on it was fine, as long as I didn't hit it funny and re-twist it, which I did a few times through the day.

The AT takes me to the Cornelius Creek Trail which is what the Promise Land course descends on. As it turns out, I think I cut over too fast. I think I should have descended on the Apple Orchard Trail about a mile, then cut over to Cornelius Creek on a easier-to-run jeep trail. No big deal. I think my route ended up being harder.

I connected to Cornelius Creek trail, said goodbye to the white blazes of the AT and headed down the blue blaze trail. This trail is also rocky and downhill. I'll drop about 2000 feet over 4 miles. The trail runs along, and crosses many times, Cornelius Creek. It's very scenic and lovely to listen to. I met two dogs with no apparent owners and much later on a group of three folks hiking up Cornelius Creek trail. I took quite a few photos here.

An easy creek crossing.

The creek is ever-present.

Some sections are very runnable.

For the most part it was just me out there. Well, me and nature.

This crossing is too wide to jump. I used the big rocks (off to the right) and nearly slipped down into a waist-deep pool. Sure I could run through it, but why get my feet wet if I don't need to? I enjoyed scouting each crossing looking for the best path to take on race day.

This moth was caught in the water. I was kind of hoping a fish would reveal itself and enjoy lunch.

On the other side of the crossing.

This crossing had a bridge. There were a few like that.

I must have stopped a dozen times to turn around and take a photo.

Animal tracks or butterflies? These are shadows of water bugs. You can't see the bug, but I liked the shadows they cast.

I stopped along the trail to fix a hotspot on my right big toe. The extra body glide was great and I tightened up both shoes which seemed to help. I never did get a blister out of it. The shoes worked out pretty well I think, though adding another 18 miles is a diffrent story.

At the bottom of the trail the course contiues downhill on a forest service road (gravel) for another 2 to 2.5 miles. There is a campsite there and the course takes a hard right into the woods to White Tail Trail. There is a sign directing you into the woods.

This is back to single track on a hillside/slope. It gets its name because it's also a deer trail and you are warned to watch out for deer. I had been following some yellow streamers that I was pretty sure marked the Promise Land route. White Tail forks a few times and at one I couldn't find the streamers on any fork. I was pretty sure I knew the right direction, but I didn't want to risk it since I had started so late. I turned around and ran back to the camp site and back up to the trail head of Cornelius Creek and Apple Orchard trail. The course loops back to there anyway.

From here, I start my "run" up Apple Orchard trail. A little fun with the self-timer before I begin.

The first half mile is pretty runnable.

The next half mile is less so. Then we we get into the really steep parts. Really steep here means "hands and feet" clambering up rocks in some cases. I'm absolutely walking this, and it's not even a power walk. From reading race reports, walking this section is par for the course.

These wildflowers came in white and pink varieties. I don't know what they are.

The trail was often rocky. Sometimes it was rocky steps. Sometimes it was just rocky rocks.

This is actually the trail!

The views remain spectacular.

I get to the waterfall and take some photos and enjoy the sound, then move on upward again.

The trail is now steep wooden steps, spaced a little too far apart, and a little too tall for comfort. I didn't count them, but I read there are 168 of them. I'll try to count them next time. I was pretty winded just walking up them.

The view to the right is pretty nice too.

Then the embarassing part of the trip. I got lost. On a hugely popular, well marked trail. I came up some steps. I saw the blue blaze. I followed "a" trail, and suddenly there was no trail and no blazes. I stopped and looked around for blazes but saw none. I back tracked to the known trail and tried to sight for blazes, then followed what looked like a likely path. That was also wrong. As I'm on my hands and knees climbing up a slope, and sliding down a lot, I'm thinking that this can't possibly be right. I back track again. I had thoughts of plowing up and over the slope to get a better look but I didn't want to be "that guy" lost in the woods. The rules are: if you're lost, stop! Don't get more lost!

After about 15 minutes I realize my mistake. I've been back sighting along where I came but in reality the trail has pulled a switchback on me near a huge rocky outcrop. I had been seeing the blue blaze of the right path all along, but interpreting it as the way I had just come -- the trails essentially moved in the same direction. That burned a good 15 minutes and I felt rather silly.

I had a few more water features to ease my embarassment.

The trail continued up to the jeep road that cuts over to Cornelius Creek -- the one I should have probably taken earlier when I had instead taken the AT further up the mountain. From here the sign says 0.9 miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Are you kidding me? It's taken me 50 minutes, not counting the getting lost thing, to get this far (from the bottom) and I still have a mile to go?

I trudge up the trail. It's open forest. The creek is small but sounds nice. Ferns and things are starting to sprout. It's pretty. It'd be prettier if I wasn't panting. This was the first time I felt fatigued. The non-stop upward slope was probably runnable if I had an energy to run, but I don't think I would have gotten to the top any faster.

I finally finish. Back at the top. Sunset Fields. (I didn't wait around until sunset for a photo.)

Overall I think it was about 13 miles covered in about 3 hours. I learned that I'm not very good at running on rocky single track, that I need work running downhill in general, and that I need work running uphill. But let me loose on the flats and I'm good! I probably didn't need to drive a total of 460 miles to figure that out. I'm glad I went. The views were great and I stopped the watch many times to enjoy them and take photos. Though I'll take my camera, I won't feel as free to do that on race day. Knowing at least part of the course, the back half and the steepest parts will help me on race day. I'll know that the top of the wood steps is not the end! There's a mile to go to Sunset Fields. I won't get lost (on that part anyway!)

I drove by the campsite where the race starts. I'l be staying there in a tent the night before. Many folks do. The race starts at 5:30am so I won't have to get up quite as early. From the race site home it took me almost exactly 4 hours. On the drive home I had a sudden craving for a Big Mac. I never eat Big Macs. I don't know how many years its been since I had one. After finishing it I could have easily eaten a second one (but didn't.)

The next morning, my ankle seems fine when I run on the flats or walk. The lateral side of each calf (I think it's the peroneus longus) is quite sore, especially when I point my toes. I suspect it's a stabilizing muscle that I never use running on flat ground all the time. My glutes and lower back are a little sore, but overall I feel pretty good. My calves themselves feel better than they did on Thursday (they were very tight.) I'll have to do some ankle strengthening work and make sure I am careful with my steps on race day to avoid twisting it again.

A little video of the day.

Thanks for reading!

Dave MacLuskie

dave.macluskie AT