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

AJW writes about his experience at an “old school” ultramarathon.

By on January 18, 2013 | Comments

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?”


“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?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.