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"To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift."   ~ Steve Prefontaine


This time my best just wasn't good enough.

Short story: I did the distance but finished nine minutes past the final cut-off in the New River Trail 50K on Saturday. I trained hard for over four months for this race. This optimistic, glass-half-full gal is discouraged and frustrated and vowing never again to enter a race with a tight cut-off. I've come in first (female) and now I've come in last.

I can assure you, first is a lot more fun.

Until the final five miles, I thought I could do it. I beat the cut-off at the last aid station by 20 minutes. I had an hour and twenty minutes to do the remaining 5.2 miles: a 15-minute-per-mile pace, easier than the 13-minute pace I'd just run for 26+ miles, and I'd finish in time to get my nice technical shirt and the satisfaction of a job well done.

I'd already been battling cramping hamstring and calf muscles in both legs the last ten miles but a dogged run-till-something-cramps / stretch-and-walk-till-it-goes-away pattern had gotten me to the Fries Junction aid station with a bit of time to spare. However, when the adductors began cramping in my right leg right after I left that aid station, it was all she wrote. I could not run, period. The few times I tried to run, the cramping only got worse. And I can't think of any pain I've had that's worse than when my adductors clench up -- not even the pain when I ruptured my peroneus brevis and longus in my left ankle eight years ago (that was intense but brief). Massage just doesn't work on my adductors like it does on my hams, calves, or shins.

Beautiful, shady trail along the New River in the first and last five miles (photo taken 9-17-08)

So there I was, being passed in the last five miles by most of the people who were behind me at that aid station. Some barely made it under seven hours, some didn't. At least one runner was in the sweep van driven by one of the many state park rangers who helped make this first-time race a big success. The van caught up to me less than two miles from the finish and shadowed me on the trail until the end. Our ultra running friend, Kevin Townsend, who'd been helping all day at the Fries Junction aid station, walked with me those last two miles and helped keep my mind off my misery. As long as I walked fast and didn't run, I wasn't in pain. Any time I tried to run, I was in worse pain than before.

So I walked. And walked. And walked. I focused on getting to the finish as fast as I possibly could. That translated into a 17:07 pace the last five miles. Not fast enough.

In the first / last mile of the course (photo taken 9-17)

I tried to get the van to go on to the finish since Kevin was walking with me, but the ranger wouldn't go away. Talk about pressure! I knew I was holding everyone up and it was embarrassing to be last. I don't think I've ever been last before. Jim gives me credit for continuing on, saying he probably would have just gotten into the van at that point! I was too stubborn to do that (but would have, if required by race protocol).

I was fortunate that RD Annette Bednosky let the runners who made the cut-off at Fries Junction continue, even when it was obvious they wouldn't finish under seven hours. Four of us can claim a 50K finish, even if it isn't "official" (we're on the finishers' list). Some races pull runners from the course if it's clear they can't finish before the cut-off and/or don't list them as finishers if they're a few seconds or minutes late.

Finally the park in Fries came into view. I was surprised how many people were still there, cheering for me to run and finish. I still couldn't run, even for an audience. Jim came out a little way and let Cody run pell-mell to greet me. That made me laugh for the first time in three hours. I saw Annette cheering me home, and Jay and Anita Finkle. Anita had finished an hour earlier but patiently waited for me to finish.

Anita coming into the finish  (photo by Jim)

I was so close to tears that I barely talked to anyone. They weren't tears of joy at accomplishing my goal. They weren't tears of relief at finally being done. I wasn't that tired, although my legs were toast. I still had energy.

No, they were tears of frustration and disappointment and regret and a gamut of other emotions that are still close to the surface two days later.

After the race we took our bowls and spoons (as requested by the RD to continue the "green theme" of the race) to a nearby building for the post-race homemade chicken and veggie soups, breads, and fruits. We were hungry and really looking forward to that soup. Unfortunately, it was all gone by the time we got there. I felt very bad for Jim, Anita, and Jay; they didn't get any either because they were waiting for me to finish. That was the coup de grāce for me. I about lost it at that point, so we quietly left for home.


This race is for the average to fast runner and is ideal for a person who's moving to ultras from road marathons. It's a good introduction to "trail" running because the surface is relatively smooth. It's a PR course if you're in shape; there aren't any hills or roots or rocks to slow you down. Even a 4- to 5-hour marathoner should be able to finish it. But if you are slower than that or aren't used to running most of 31+ miles on a flat course at a steady pace, it's a challenge to finish in seven hours. I was one of several runners (even fast ones) who commented that there was "too much running" involved. What we all meant was that there weren't any obvious places like long uphills to walk without guilt! I've run hilly courses for so many years that it's a real challenge to run flat so long.

Part of the course on September 17 (during our training run)

Although I've trained at a steady pace on a relatively flat course for over four months for this race, I just wasn't able to pull off a fast enough pace for the total distance. The time limit required me to run more and walk less than I was able to do. I ran faster than I did at Hinson Lake, where I got only about 27½ miles in seven hours, but not as fast as I did on my long training runs of 20-23 miles. I couldn't hold it for the 50K distance. I wasn't expecting a 50K PR, but I thought I had at least a 50-50 chance of finishing New River in seven hours. I was wrong.

OK, let's go back to the beginning of the race . . .


After driving down for our training run on the New River course on September 17 we decided to cancel our motel reservations in Hillsville, sleep in our own comfortable bed at home on Friday night, and leave at 4:30 AM Saturday for the drive to Fries (pronounced "Freeze"), VA to the start of the race. Neither of us slept great Friday night but we slept better than we do in a motel the night before a race.

In the last few days before the race I was like a greyhound at the gate, raring to run. Obviously I don't RUN like a greyhound, but you get the idea. I was pumped for this race!

Foggy pre-race view of the race start/finish banner

The two-hour trip to the New River Valley was uneventful. The weather was cool and clear, the stars bright in the early morning darkness. We enjoyed winding, hilly I-81 and I-77 through the Appalachian foothills while the roads weren't crowded with semis and kamikaze cars hellbent on going 15 MPH over the speed limit. In the dark we missed the beautiful trees just beginning to display their fall colors (I predict a brilliant autumn in southwestern Virginia) but sure enjoyed them on the way back home.

We stopped for a couple minutes at the Cliffview trailhead just west of Galax, one of two southern termini of the New River Trail and site of the turnaround aid station near the state park's ranger station. Jim was captain of this aid station. He was pleased to see that the rangers had already erected a large tent and set up a table full of supplies. Jim brought some other equipment from home, including several five-gallon containers of ice that he'd fill with water and the electrolyte drink after the race began.

But now we needed to get to the start/finish area several miles away at Fries.

It was no big surprise to find the *other* southern terminus of the New River Trail enveloped in fog. Rivers have a tendency to do that to the surrounding valleys. It was still pretty dark at 7 AM as we were directed to a parking area near the big race tent:

We got prime parking because Jim would be transporting runners' drop bags and additional aid station supplies to Cliffview. Here Cody guards the drop bags (and probably wonders if he's going to have any room left to lie down!):

Everything seemed to be in order at the start. Two volunteers handled registration efficiently:

After I got my number I was directed to the display of beautiful hand-made pottery mugs at the end of one table to choose my entrants' gift (we had a choice of the locally-made pottery or a Nathan water bottle):

This is the pretty cup made by Pat Morrison that I chose:

Each runner could also enter a drawing for nice door prizes donated by the sponsors. The gifts were on display so we could see what was available. I put both of my lottery tickets in the envelope for a women's Nathan "Krissy" (Moehl) water vest but alas, my number wasn't drawn. I think it's a great  idea to be able to choose which door prizes you want, so you don't end up with something that doesn't fit or is unneeded.

I wandered around taking pictures while Jim talked with Annette about aid station logistics and met a couple of his volunteers, Amy "Flame" Brown (one of our VHTRC friends) and a local man named Roy. Here's Jim with Annette and Roy:

Oh, there's Anita Finkle! Husband Jay was sleeping in their camper, enjoying a relaxing weekend after running a great race at the Grindstone 100 a week ago. He came out later to crew for Anita. It was good to spend some time with her before the race. She and Jay live on the other side of Roanoke and we end up seeing them more often at races than at home! Jim took this picture of us before the race:

We knew fewer runners at this race than other ones we have run. In fact, I saw more ultra running volunteers that I know than race entrants. Before and during the race at least ten people introduced themselves to me after asking if I was Sue Norwood. It was good to meet them! They had seen my Picasa photos of the course and appreciated having a preview. Some even said they went through all the other photo albums on the site and loved them. That made me feel good. I'm always glad when my photos are helpful or encourage people to go see the same scenery.

This is what the finish area looked like (without the fog) later in the morning and afternoon as the runners came back to Fries at the end of their journey on the out-and-back course:

View of finish line (photo taken pre-race)

There are additional pre-race and course photos on our Picasa site and a description of the course in the last journal entry.


Finally it was 8 AM and time to run. Although it was only in the mid-40s and still very foggy, I know how fast I warm up when I'm running so I wore a singlet, shorts, and a pair of Moeben sleeves to keep my arms warm. After two miles I already had the Moebens turned down around my wrists. I'm glad I wore them instead of a long-sleeved shirt because I couldn't ditch them until Cliffview at 16+ miles. That was the only place for drop bags. (Crews can drive to two additional road crossings.)

I positioned myself about 3/4 of the way toward the back. The trail is essentially double-track (grass in the middle, as in the picture below) until the first road crossing about 1½+ miles into the race. I wanted to run to that road or beyond without stopping or having to weave through a bunch of other runners. I passed a few folks and a few passed me, but I was able to run a steady pace for 20 minutes before taking my first short walking break to drink Perpetuem, take a slug of espresso Hammergel, and wash it all down with water.

Outbound in first mile (this was taken on a sunny afternoon, however, and not a foggy morning)

That's pretty much the drill I maintained for the first 16 miles: run a steady pace between one or two mile markers (love those mile markers!!), walk to drink, and start running again. I was able to run at least ten, if not fifteen or twenty, minutes at a time until just past the halfway point. I carried a concentrated bottle of Perp in my single fanny pack and a bottle of water in a hand-held UD carrier.

In each aid station I got my water bottle refilled and took in no food. In my effort to get in and out of aid stations as fast as possible, I neglected to drink additional fluids there. I should have -- I had to conserve water twice on the longest section out and back. That probably contributed to my cramping. I can't imagine that it was a lack of electrolytes because I was taking at least three Endurolyte capsules every hour (total of 25 in seven hours!). I'll talk about that in the next entry.

Foggy barn near Cliffview (photo from our training run on 9-17)

I felt great during the early miles, unlike the sluggishness I felt from the get-go at Hinson Lake. I was optimistic this would be my day! The fog effect was very cool (literally and figuratively -- I was dripping wet from it) until the sun burned it off several miles into the course and we could fully enjoy the New River and its beautiful shoals and shores. The downside for me was the heat, which reached the low 70s by the time I finished.

I was quite happy to cover the first 5.2 miles in 56 minutes to Fries Junction. It felt easy and effortless so I wasn't worried that I was going too fast. I tried to remember how long each section took between aid stations so I'd have an idea how I was doing on the return but I quickly forgot most of the numbers (I've become too low-key in recent years to use the chrono features of my watch).

Fries Junction, as seen on our training run.  During the race
we ran past the aid station located to the left of the kiosk three times.

Next we had to run 3/4 mile north on the NRT to a manned turn-around point and back to the aid station at the junction. Fortunately, we didn't have to cover this 1½-mile section on the way back. Jim and I didn't run this little part on our training run so it held some nice surprises. I loved the colorful, rugged rock cliffs on one side of the trail and wished I had my camera. (I kept my promise and didn't carry a camera during the race! Photos here of the course were ones I took three weeks ago before the leaves began to turn. By race day they were getting colorful and there were more leaves on the course than before.)

I like courses that have out-and-back sections so I can see other runners who are ahead of and behind me. It was good to see our friends Bill Keane and Anita Finkle running well here and after the turnaround at Cliffview. I counted fifteen runners behind me on this section.

Our ultra friend Kevin Townsend was working the Fries Junction aid station, which runners passed  three times. Kevin was very enthusiastic and helpful. That guy knows how to take care of runners and fill bottles fast! Thanks, Kevin. As you saw above, he would end up being my Trail Angel the last two miles.


. . . to Jim's aid station we go!

Well, not quite yet. First we had to cross the 1,089-foot bridge across the New River (above), burrow through a mountain via a tunnel, pass the Gambetta road crossing, say hi to the cows at the Triple C farm, acknowledge the old railroad turntable landmark, check in at the Chestnut Yard aid station, admire the sculpture at the Cliffview campground, and THEN hit Jim's aid station at Cliffview -- the *other* southern terminus of the New River Trail (the race course is an inverted Y with a very short tail). It was a distance of about 9.6 miles total.

In this segment I began having some leg cramps. First it was my left hamstring. Next was my left calf and foot. Then it migrated to the right side (foot and calf only). I could manage the numbness and cramping OK and continued to crank out 11- to 13- minute miles. My average overall pace to Cliffview (officially 16.3 miles) was 12:12 minutes per mile, including two brief stops at aid stations. I mostly ran from mile marker to mile marker (except when I had to massage a cramp), slowing to a walk each time I hit a marker for the length of time it took me to down a mouthful of concentrated Perp, an electrolyte cap, some Hammergel, and water to wash it down. Then I'd get cranking again.

Light at the end of the tunnel (it's very dark inside)

I ran off and on with a few other folks, chatting about the course and other races. A couple indicated they were wearing wrist GPS devices. Their numbers where higher than the official mileage numbers. So was Jim's when we did our training run. This couldn't be good news for me, if it was true. It would be all I could do to run the true 50K distance in seven hours. Any more would be a serious problem. (Annette wants feedback from everyone who measured the course. With my luck, it was probably short!)

On the way to the race Jim mentioned he had a dream about it during the night. He remembered clearly that I arrived at the turnaround aid station at 11:19 AM, 3:19 hours into the race. Since I had an extra 1½ miles to run in the first "half," I was aiming for about 3:15 hours to Cliffview. I'd already told Jim my plan. That pace would give me more time on the return when I'd be more fatigued.

You've probably already guessed how long it took me to get to the turnaround: 3:18 hours, a minute before Jim's guess! He greeted me with, "Right on time!"

The timing was good, but I was already feeling fried in the sun and would have loved to drop out right then and there. But I knew I had a good chance of finishing the race so I didn't seriously entertain any thoughts of quitting, even when I was reduced to a walk at the end.

Our friend Anita coming into Cliffview at the turnaround. The aid station was to the right.

Cody was tied up to the split rail fencing away from the aid station, happy to hear my voice. I went over to pet him for a few seconds while Jim ran across the street to the van to get my sunglasses and The Stick, a nifty little device to massage my legs. I swapped bottles of Perp and flasks of Hammergel, got a dry neckerchief for sweaty eyes, briefly pummeled my sore leg muscles with The Stick, and was on my way in about three minutes. That was my longest aid station stop.


The return 9.6 miles to Fries Junction truly tested my mettle. I was hot and my legs were toast. I had energy but the calf cramps got increasingly worse. I had 3:38 hours to get back to the finish in time. I wasn't able to do the exact math in my head, but I knew I needed to maintain a pace of about 14  minutes a mile to reach my goal of sub-7 hours. That was if the distance was really 14.8 miles. If it was longer I would have to run faster.

One of several bridges over Chestnut Creek in this section.
There's a close-up of the falls in the last entry. Photo from 9-17-08 training run.

I struggled to maintain some sort of steady pace but ended up being able to run only a minute or two at a time until the cramping started, walking until the cramps subsided or I could massage them out, running a minute or two again, ad infinitum. I was focused on getting from Point A to Point B and don't remember much of this section going back.

A man and two women passed me. I played cat and mouse most of the way with George Songer, who remembered me from my days of running at Stone Mountain, near Atlanta. He was maintaining a very slow, steady run. I'd pass him running, then he'd catch up when I walked. It would have been almost comical if I wasn't so frustrated. But I maintained a 14:10 pace and got back to Fries Junction 20 minutes before the 2 PM cut-off at that aid station. That gave me 1:20 to finish the 5.2-mile section that took me only 56 minutes outbound.

If only . . .

Calm scene along the New River about three miles from the start / finish (photo taken 9-17)

My margin of error was still pretty slim. I had to maintain a 15-minute pace or better to finish in time. I could have done it IF my adductors hadn't started cramping. As already mentioned in graphic detail above (some would say "whining"), I had to walk the rest of the way to my ignominious finish. George passed me about a mile from the end. I thought he'd make the seven-hour cut-off because he was still running slowly, but he missed it by 5+ minutes.


Jim and Annette had been in contact by e-mail several times before the race to work our details for the turnaround aid station. Everything went pretty much according to plan. The park rangers took care of the tent, tables, cones, and signage, leaving Jim to oversee the whole setup and manage his five volunteers. Most were experienced in working races so his job was pretty easy in that regard. He let them choose the tasks they wanted to do and they all did a fine job. Jim helped Roy record runners' numbers as they came in and generally kept things flowing smoothly, filling in where needed.

Cody had a great time playing with the rangers, volunteers, crews, and lots of kids. He was well-behaved and happy on his 20-foot cord in the shady grass, well away from the aid station. There were a few other dogs around but no problems with any of them as far as Jim could tell. We're glad the park allows well-behaved, leashed dogs.

After all the runners came through Jim, the other volunteers, and the park rangers packed up the aid station. Roy graciously offered to take the drop bags and most of the supplies back to the finish area in the back of his truck. He had a lot more room than we did in our Odyssey van. Jim retrieved all our water containers and other personal equipment (knives, cutting board, etc.). Park personnel took care of the tent, tables, and cones.

Jim was back at the finish area by about 1 PM and got to watch most of the runners come in.

Annette cheers an incoming runner at the finish line
(photo cropped from a larger one Jim took)

Annette offered the volunteers a choice of nice gifts. Jim chose some of the blackberry jam Annette made this summer, and was surprised to receive TWO jars of it. We had some on English muffins for breakfast yesterday and we can vouch that she makes tasty jam! She also gave out pasta sauce that she made.

Thank you, Annette, for those very personal touches.


This new race filled quickly and will probably end up requiring a lottery before long to gain entrance unless the park service allows more runners to participate in subsequent years. Annette and George Bednosky had their ducks in a row. Almost everything we could see went smoothly before, during, and after the event. It's obvious there was a lot of hard work and great cooperation / communication with the park staff to pull it off so well. 

Annette was also very enthusiastic, encouraging the runners before, during, and after the race. I saw her at Chestnut Yard on the outbound, cheering for us as we came into the aid station. At the finish line Jim saw her run out to bring in the last three women who finished officially with just a few seconds to spare. The finish rate (94%) was very high, even for a 50K: 96 of 102 starters finished under seven hours (and four more, including me, are listed as finishers over seven hours). That has to be very satisfying to Annette and George, as well as to the runners themselves. Several of them were ultra newbies.

If you think you might want to run this race next year, get your dibs in early! It will fill up even faster than this year. Jim predicts the necessity for a lottery before long.

Next entry: my crisis of confidence


"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater (in spirit)

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© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil