The Ultra Stage Race Subculture

AJW's TaproomA couple of weekends ago, I had the opportunity to spend three days in West Virginia at the West Virginia Trilogy, a three-day stage race based out of the Mountain Institute on the slopes of Spruce Mountain, West Virginia. Organized by the West Virginia Mountain Runners and co-directed by Dan Lehmann and Adam Casseday, this three-day running festival showcases some of the best mountain running east of the Mississippi. Consisting of a 50K, a 50-mile, and a 13-mile day, the format tests endurance, speed, and, most importantly, the capacity for recovery.

After each day the Trilogy runners gathered in the spacious yurt that serves as the race headquarters for delicious food, hot coffee, cold beer, and wonderful camaraderie. The vibe each afternoon and evening was positively vibrant and the atmosphere was warm and peaceful. Additionally, and quite obviously welcomed by many, was the fact that the Mountain Institute’s location high in the West Virginia Appalachians meant that cellphone service was non-existent and all of the runners, therefore, whiled away their days talking to one another, enjoyed reading or listening to music, or just taking in the tranquil scene before them. For me, it was the most relaxed I had been in quite some time.

AJW - 2016 West Virginia Trilogy - Finish

AJW finishing this 2016 West Virginia Trilogy.

After my adventure out in the Mountain State I did a little research into other stage races around the country and was surprised to find quite a variety and selection. In a similar vein to the West Virginia Trilogy are two other great 3-day events in the American South, Three Days of Syllamo in Arkansas in March and the Chatanooga Mountain Stage Race in Tennessee in June. Both of these three-day events emanate from a single basecamp and include meals and camping as part of the registration fee.

Then there are the longer, point-to-point races, some with less than ultra distances each day, that include runner’s belongings being transported to and from each day’s venue, camping, and meals. There’s the classic TransRockies Run in Colorado in August and the newer Grand to Grand Ultra in Utah and Arizona in September. In general, these stage races are longer (typically six days) and a bit more expensive than the basecamp runs in that they include more complicated logistics and transportation.

Finally, there are races that are not actually stage races at all, but due to the distance and length of time typically taken to complete that distance, make them virtual stage races. These are, of course, the new-ish 200-mile races that have popped up in recent years. Made popular initially by Candice Burt’s Tahoe 200, there are now a handful of these large scale events that take runners two-to-four days to complete, usually involve time spent sleeping, eating, and recovering like stage races, and are spread out over multiple days. Those who I talked to about these events, in particular, spoke about the unique vibe that accompanies the shared suffering of multi-day events.

Indeed, with many of the people I spoke with, it was the unique vibe inherent to stage racing that came up again and again as being a distinguishing characteristic of such events. Perhaps due to the multi-day nature of the events or simply the old school sensibility of those inclined to organize such events but it seems to me this is one area of our beloved sport that is endeavoring to stay true to our classic, simple roots. And from where I sit that is a very good thing.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Mountain State Brewing - Almost Heaven AmberDan Lehmann, co-RD of the West Virginia Trilogy, is fortunate to have a son, Willy, who is a brewer and is the owner and operator of Mountain State Brewing in Davis, West Virginia. While at the Trilogy, Willy provided an ample supply of his beer, which included the delicious Almost Heaven Amber Ale. At 5.2% and just a tad sweet, Almost Heaven is a classic Amber with just a touch of hoppiness. It was particularly good after a full day of rain on our 50-mile day!

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • If you’ve ever run a stage race, what was it and what did you enjoy most about it?
  • If you’ve not run a stage race, are you interested in going so? Any in particular that tempt you?

There are 4 comments

  1. Gary

    Great article!
    Please let folks know that the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners ( put on about a dozen trail races of Various distances all over West Virginia

  2. Jeremiah

    Very nice acknowledgement. I live in Pittsburgh but have made it to West Virginia for a view WV Mountain Trail Runners events. Both the Highland Sky and the Trilogy have been amazing. The Mountain Institute offered exceptional hospitality, and I found myself slowing down a few times on the course to recognize the efforts of the races’ directors and volunteers to bring people to a truly special place.

  3. Sean

    Stage races are easily my very favorite type of races! I was first introduced to them via cycling, then when I got deeper into running, I was excited to find them in this sport, too. My first running stage race was the Lake Tahoe 3-Day Stage Ultra (now called the Tahoe Triple) in 2001, which I ran annually for 5 years. Others over the years that I’ve enjoyed (many multiple times): Tuscarora Trail Stage Race, Sunsweet Trail Festival, TransRockies, Desert RATS, 3 Days of Syllamo, and Squamish 50/50, amongst others (plus more on my list).

    Andy nails it when he talks about the camaraderie of stage races. In addition to really getting to experience the area of the race via foot, it’s the camaraderie of each of these stage races that I really love. Going through the highs and lows, day after day, with your fellow competitors really brings you all together in a very natural way. The vibe around each evening’s fire is always joyful, if not a bit subdued.

    One of the strategies I enjoy about stage racing is that what you do today, directly affects tomorrow’s stage, meaning, if you slouch-off toward the end of today’s stage and get lazy with your caloric and hydration intake, you put tomorrow’s stage at risk.

    If you’ve never run a stage race, I highly recommend you do!

    1. Chris Herrera

      Wow, Sean you and the original poster really hit the nail on the head about ultra stage racing. This is the same type inspiration which led me to create Trans-Pecos Ultra in remote west Texas. I invite you to check out the website and join us. Let me know what you think too!

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