My First Ultra Marathon! Terrapin Mtn 50K & Half Marathon

Terrapin Mtn. Start/Finish Line
Terrapin Mtn. Start/Finish Line

Okay, so I didn’t run an ultra marathon this weekend, but I got you with my title, didn’t I?  I did, however, ATTEND my first ultra marathon!  haha

My friend, ultra runner, and fellow blogger Rudy (http://rutemill.blogspot.com/), decided to invite me to the Terrapin Mountain 50K and 1/2 Marathon this past weekend (March 22-23, 2013).  It was pretty random, but I was glad he did.  I had never been to an event like this before, so I decided to accept his invitation.  Despite the fact that I was not running in the race, nor was he, there was definitely something in it for us: good company, a cold night in a tent, and a great hiking opportunity.

We left Blacksburg around 4 pm on Friday, and headed up to Sedalia Center (north of Bedford) to the location of the race. We got there around 5:30. We had planned to take in the sunset from the summit of Terrapin Mountain that evening.  I was planning to hike it, and Rudy was planning to trail run to the summit alongside his roommate Wyatt.  Pressed for time, I laced up my boots and headed to the trail head as soon as we got there.

The Hike

Terrapin Mtn. 50 K map.  I simply hiked from the start/finish to the summit (black triangle), and back.
Terrapin Mtn. 50 K map. I simply hiked from the start/finish to the summit (black triangle), and back.

I headed out before Rudy and Wyatt, as I expected them to pass me on the way up.  Following the pink race markers, I was making great progress up Terrapin Mountain.  The initial section of trail seemed to be an old forest road that was very rough (for a car, but fine for hiking) and unmarked.  There was some blazing (yellow rectangles), but they were very faint and infrequent.  As a matter of fact, I don’t think I would have been able to complete this hike without the race markers.  I’m not sure if I would be able to repeat it in the future if the race markers are removed post race.  Regardless, the hike was going great!  I was hiking way harder than usual in an attempt to reach the summit by sunset.  I had my doubts if I would make it.  Motoring along, I was greeted by Rudy and Wyatt on their run up the same trail.  After a quick hello, they were off again up the trail.  Since they were going to beat me to the summit, they vowed to wait there until I reached it.

After a stream crossing and following a bit more “road” like trail, the trail finally began to narrow and seem more like a hiking trail.  After 4.1 miles, I made it to Camping Gap, a saddle of sorts, below the summit of Terrapin Mountain.  From Camping Gap, there is a really steep climb to the summit.  I had heard about it, and it was true.  This section was a crazy steep, fall line trail.  A great challenge to the mind and body, but the thought of a sunset and my friends at the top helped me charge right through it.

view from the summit of Terrapin Mtn. at dusk
view from the summit of Terrapin Mtn. at dusk

In just under 5 miles, and around 1 hour and 40 minutes of hiking, I met Rudy and Wyatt at the cold and windy summit.  Both were shivering, they had been waiting for me.  It was super cool of them to wait, it really made my day, if not week.  Rudy had told me the summit was great, and he wasn’t lying.  It was great to experience it with him and Wyatt.  After snapping a few pics, I let Rudy and Wyatt head down, they definitely needed to warm up.

Rudy and I.  One hikes, one runs, but both crush peaks.

The descent was dark, but quick.  Upon returning, Rudy had made me an awesome, homemade veggie pizza!  An awesome way to end a great Friday and an amazing hike.

You know my motto:  “crush peaks, crush pizza.”

Race Day

Saturday started with and early and cold wake up call around 5:30 am.

runners up early
runners up early

I was planning on heading back up the mountain to the aid station at Camping Gap in order to watch the race unfold, however, I opted to stay back partially due to a blister on my foot from the previous day’s hike (new boots, ugh), and the fact that I hadn’t had a single rest day yet that week.  The body needed it.  Rudy and Wyatt ran up to the aid station, but I got to check out the pre-race announcements and the start of the race. The energy was really electric, even early in the morning.  Everyone was

start of race towards Terrapin Mtn
start of race towards Terrapin Mtn

ready to run!  The coolest thing I noticed was how many different types of people were there.  For some reason, I expected to only see young, lean, “runner type” folks.  However, there were people from all walks of life: men and women – young and old, guys with proud beer bellies, and people using trekking poles that looked more ready to hike than to run.  It was a super cool scene to see so many different kinds of people all come out for something they love: trail running.

the VT Ultra camp site
the VT Ultra camp site

I even had the pleasure of running into two of my good friends, Josh and Kati.  I had no idea either of them were attending the race, so it was a nice surprise.  Josh was running the 50K, and Kati was there for support.  I asked them to take a photo, but they didn’t seem too psyched up about the idea at 6:30 am, haha.  I can’t blame them.

After the racers were off, I just got to hangout in the tent drinking tea and reading until the racers returned, which was actually really nice.  Virginia Tech’s Ultra Team did great!  Congrats everyone!

What is Ultra Running?  How Does it Compare to Hiking?

So, even though I’ve known Rudy for a while, I’ve never completely known what ultra running was all about.  This event gave me a better inside look.  In short, ultra running is trail running, but long distance.

Ultra runners run on many of the same trails that hikers use.  It seems to me, that at least as far as day hikes/runs are concerned, ultra runners are total minimalists.  For example, when I go on a day hike, I tend to carry plenty of water, food, a full med kit, warm/rain layers, trekking poles, and other small essentials (whistle, compass, map, etc).  As a hiker and more particularly a guide, I tend to be hyper aware of environmental conditions and hazards, so I try to have enough in my pack to be ready for a sudden shift in weather or unexpected injury.  Therefore, I carry a fair amount of stuff.  However, looking at their packs, it seems most ultra runners take almost nothing next to water.

Left:  my hiking daypack  Right:  Rudy's running pack
Left: my hiking daypack Right: Rudy’s running pack

They might have room for a few energy bars, cell phone, and coat, but they hardly carry anything.  This was crazy to me, as these runners go just as deep into the forest and visit as many cold summits as any hiker. Futher, they probably even see more miles of trail than any hiker on any given day out on the trail.  In the context of an established race, it might not be that crazy, as there are plenty of people around, which is safer, and some medical help at aid stations and such. However, for an ultra runner’s recreation/training runs alone on the trail, that lack of supplies (particularly clothing and medical) is mind boggling to me.  I don’t know if other hikers would have trouble wrapping their head around it, but I found it an interesting difference, particularly in regards to safety.  However, I admire ultra runners for their courage to be out on the trail without safety supplies.  Either way, whether you have a med kit or not, hiking and trail running both come down to taking conscious and smart steps at all times, rather than careless and lazy ones.

Something I found to be really cool at the race was the sense of community.  The Ultra scene was really cool and interpersonal.  There were obviously patches of small communities (i.e. the UltraVT team), but everyone seemed to know someone else outside of their circle.  The love of running really just brings everyone together. Additionally, races, by nature, are a competition.  However, I really felt the overall vibe was one of encouragement and support, rather than competition.  Everyone cheered each other on, and congratulated others as they crossed the finish line.  It didn’t even matter what distance anyone was running, the 50K or the 1/2 marathon, it was all love.   It was super cool to see an overall vibe of friendliness and support, rather than competition.  The greatest sense of competition seemed to be more about personal time, rather than other people.

Lastly, ultra runners, not unlike avid hikers, seem to be “up and at ’em” and “seize the day” kind of folk.  I like that.  I feel like hikers are the type of people who don’t mind getting up early to get out there, explore, see something new, and smell the roses; whether in solitude or in good company.  Ultra runners seem to be the same way.  They don’t mind, or rather embrace, a good challenge and a jam packed day.  Ultra runners and hikers alike, truly live by the mantra “carpe diem.”  For that reason, I felt really comfortable amongst the runners.  They’re also unashamed car campers, which I like.  Despite being a backpacker, I’ve got nothing but love for car camping.

Conclusion

Overall, my first experience with UltraVT, Terrapin Mountain (the hike and the event), and ultra running in general was awesome!  Everyone was super friendly and the setting was beautiful!  I had an amazing hike with great friends.  Also, being in that environment really rekindled my intention to run a half marathon.  I was training for one just about a year ago, when I was halted by my first bout of IT Band syndrome.  It stopped me in my tracks and required physical therapy.  Since then, I had put the idea on the back burner.  However, I’m hoping by this upcoming fall, I can be a part of my first half marathon.  And I had always pictured it to be a road race, but after spending time at Terrapin Mtn with UltraVT, I really think I would like it to be an ultra, trail race. I don’t know if anything like a 50K is in store for the future, but a half is definitely on the agenda.  Let the training begin.

To all involved, thanks for a great weekend!  Happy running and happy hiking!

And of course, I had a beer pairing to go with the weekend’s events –

Terrapin Brewing Company
Terrapin Brewing Company
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2 thoughts on “My First Ultra Marathon! Terrapin Mtn 50K & Half Marathon

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