Ode to the Old School Ultra: Willis River 50K Report

AJWs TaproomAnybody who has lurked around this Taproom for any length of time knows that I am an unapologetic devotee of the Western States 100. The most historic, prestigious, and iconic 100-mile ultramarathon in the country. I love the pageantry and spectacle of the event as well as the mystique and allure of the trail. It is, quite honestly, the highlight of my year, every year.

However, what readers may not know about me is that I am also an unabashed lover of the low-key, Old School Ultras. You know the ones, those races where the race director draws the starting line in the dirt and where the finish-line food is the same stuff they have at the aid stations. It’s those races that are put on by a few local runners for a few other local runners in a place that maybe they have a permit for and where people park their cars wherever they can and try to follow the course markings which are usually minimal if they exist at all. It’s those kind of races with no prizes, maybe a cotton t-shirt, and a great down-home feel that is more reminiscent of a county fair than a running event.

One such race that I had the pleasure to run last weekend is the Willis River 50K in Cumberland, Virginia. This year was the 13th running of this nice little ultra put on by the Richmond Road Runners (I especially love it when groups with “Road Runners” in their names host trail races.) and it was a gem. I drove down there from Charlottesville with my friend and erstwhile training partner Sophie Speidel, the “Diva” of Central Virginia ultrarunning, and as soon as I got there I knew this was going to be a good one. The RD himself greeted us at the registration table and gave us our numbers. Numbers that had exactly zero sponsorship logos on them! Then, it was off to the starting area; no music playing, no blow-up dolls, no pre-race nerves, just a couple hundred folks shivering in the morning chill waiting for the opportunity to shed a few holiday pounds and enjoy some time on singletrack.

The pre-race briefing was awesome. I paraphrase:

Welcome to the 13th running of the Willis River 50K. If you’re one of those people who are scared about the number 13 you should drop out now. If you’re not, here’s the deal. You’ll be following the white blazes on the trees and the white ribbons where we have gotten out to hang them. There are a few tricky places so if you’re running alone you may want to wait for the people behind you to catch up so you can get lost together. If you’re running out front and you get lost you probably won’t win. Most of the time you’ll only get lost for a minute or two but if you get scared just start yelling and someone will probably yell back. Okay, any questions?…The starting line is up here about 100 yards. If you’re running the 50K leave your stuff here. Okay, everybody ready? Bill, is the clock set? Okay, go!

And, we were off! About five minutes in my group took their first wrong turn. Ten minutes after that we went wandering off trail again. About four miles in a group of about five guys come rumbling up behind us having taken two or three other wrong turns. It was comical, and perfect for this kind of event. It all evened out by the 5-mile aid station and the course became much more clear. It was never flat but never really hilly either, weird that way, actually. It was one of those singletrack, state park-type trail systems that twists and turns around trees and rocks for no discernible reason and yet it’s not frustrating or debilitating. Rather, it’s liberating and confounding. At the 10-mile mark (the first of two turnarounds), I took stock of the competition and realized I was in 15th place. A bunch of thoughts ran through my head;

“Man, I am frickin’ old.”

“I thought I was actually recovering from this injury.”

“Who are all these Richmond roadies?”

“Maybe I missed the shortcut trail?”

“50 km isn’t really even an ultra.”

I put my head down and hammered back to the start/finish area that was also the jumping-off point for the last 15 km of the race and the “finish” of the companion 35 km race. I had two questions for the guy at the aid station:

“You got any sports drink?”

“Yeah, the Coke’s right there.”

“What place am I in?”

“4th.”

“Really? I thought it was, like, 15th.”

“Yeah, it was, but most everyone else stopped. They’re over there drinking beer.”

I grabbed my bottle filled with Coke and took off.

The rest of the race was rather uneventful. I didn’t go off trail, I didn’t catch anybody, and the only guy I talked to was the guy at the 25-mile aid station who was also, not surprisingly, the race director himself, alone at the table with Coke, water, and his running gear. It was just right.

When I got to the finish (eight minutes shy of “the podium”) I chatted a bit with the top-3 guys (all at least 10 years younger than me) and then headed to my car for my recovery drinks (two, room temperature Sierra Nevadas) before Sophie and I quietly departed the now nearly abandoned parking lot and headed home. All in all, an extraordinarily satisfying day on the trails.

And there, my friends, there is the thing. As much as I love the pomp and circumstance of the Big Time, I also truly love coming back to the roots of all this. And even though I am not from Virginia and was running with people I had never met in a place where I had never been I somehow, even in the midst of a sketchily marked trail and Coke as a sports drink, felt at home. In that time and at that place, that’s all I needed.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
Anchor Steam BeerThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Anchor Steam in San Francisco. You really can’t get much more Old School, at least on the West Coast, than their classic Anchor Steam Beer. First brewed in 1896 it has defined a genre for over a century. And, from my perspective, quite honestly, it never gets old.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What was the last old-school ultra or trail race that you ran?
  • What makes a race “old school” in your mind?
  • What’s your favorite aspect of an old-school race or your favorite old-school race, period?

There are 19 comments

  1. Dawn

    AJW anytime you want to make a trip to the beach in Florida you can come run my old school ultra the Jacks 50k as my guest. We have great competition. I started it 5 yrs ago bc i too love the atmosphere of those type of races and will always keep mine small so I can always greet and meet my runners and maybe run the race myself!! Thanks for drawing others attention to their charm!

  2. Blair Mann

    Thanks for this column, it makes my week every week! I look forward to it every Friday. Love hearing from someone so passionate about running! Currently down and out after an appendectomy, craving a race like you just described…can't wait to run again :) Cheers!

  3. Patrick McGlade

    Andy, I was there too but you forgot about the aid station worker's husky and pitbull that joined the race! When I got to the finish line, the guy working the times said, "Okay, we'll call your time, 'blah blah blah.'" I liked the lack of precision.

  4. Brian Chiles

    Great report Andy…..exactly what the sport is really about. It makes me want to run Catoctin again this year. Just an Old School race with a great Old School vibe.

  5. AV1611-Ben

    Umm, not sure what happened there! I had another line which had the "less equals more" symbols… Oh well, you get the idea.

    Less equals more is very true of the nature of a decent trail race.

  6. korey

    This was an awesome article.
    I'm pretty new to ultras, but 2 years ago when I ran my first "50K" it was like that. Bad course markings, just water at "aid stations" and it ended up being 34 miles because of some impromptu re routing. That was probably my most memorable race. loved it.

  7. Jacques

    Loved the report. I also loved all the hoopla of WS when I was running it. My first love are the old school races. Could never figure out why I loved WS too. Maybe because it has a certain Old School Hoopla thing going on.

  8. Annie

    Willis River (aka Swinging Bridge)!! Glad you enjoyed the day. Last year, it was my first "real" trail race, and between that and Horton's Holiday Lake, I fell hook, line & sinker for the ultra-life….and I DITTO Brian's comment about Catoctin. Same feel, totally old-school, but with the charm of late-July heat and humidity (and rattlesnakes) to add to the thrill….

  9. 100th Mile

    Great report. The last old school race that I ran was my first, the Watchung Winter 50k, put on by NJ Trail Series. A line drawn in the freshly fallen snow (about 4 inches of it), 60% of the field dropping after the first 10 mile loop due to the snow, the temps, and the fact that they paid $20 to run it and would get nothing but a few black toenails to show for their efforts, and me and a 20 year old kid running our hearts out to finish our first ultra-marathon. Man..I fell in love with the sport that day.

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