Promise Land 50km++– April 27th, 2019 - By Emmet Delaney
Promise Land 50km++ is a rugged trail race around the Blue Ridge Mountains in south west Virginia. “++” means more like 55km and in this case about 8,000 feet of ascent/descent involved. We were drawn to the race by the remote location, its ruggedness and scenery, and the sheer challenge of a difficult course. Dr. David Horton is the Race Director for PL50km, a renowned and revered man in the trail running community. Over his decades of teaching at Liberty University he has gotten hundreds of his students into trail running and many were present Saturday, both as runners and volunteers.
Friday afternoon Paul Hackley and I drove about 4 hours to bib collection and our hotel in Bedford. We had a lovely dinner at a converted railroad station (Liberty Station) and a conversation around course maps, course profile, turns and aid stations. We took special care to fold our numbers into a smaller shape and pin to our shorts. Numbers pinned to the leg of your shorts is how you tell an experienced trail runner from a neophyte.
We were up at 3.40am for a 5.30am start. Promise Land Youth Camp is in a remote and very isolated part of Bedfordshire County. There are miles and miles of wide-open spaces. About 300 jittery and excited runners huddled in the dark on a grassy field at the camp. Our start was foreboding – nearly 5 miles of steep uphill. The first mile was barely runnable, the next 3 were steady walking. Pacing up steep hills is how you survive a long day on the trails. A strong walk is part of my ultra-running strategy and I embrace it as a best practice. It was dark climbing up the hill, a steady stream of headlamps twinkling and winding upwards. We could see the moon rising and innumerable stars.
As we crested our first serious climb up Apple Orchard Mountain, about M5, the sun was peeping over the horizon and we were presented with a glorious vista, the very reason I run trails. The morning’s rays searched out the lower valleys, vaporizing the mist-filled glens. The fingerling tree limbs poked through the daybreak and all was silent save for chirping birds in the nascent day. Marring this pastoral reverie was the bitter wind which chilled us intermittently through most of the day. I lost a glove while taking photos here and my fingers lost all feeling and control. Paul was good enough to give me his.
We had a short downhill about M6-M9 and then another serious climb to M12 crossing Blue Ridge Parkway. The icy breeze kept catching us on the windward side of the slopes. Thereafter the day went better for me until M20. My weakness as a runner is the technical, rocky downhills. Tripping and falling is very easy and countless people passed me. I returned the favor on the few flat sections and striding up the hills. Later in the late morning, when I was isolated on the trail, I noticed how serene and idyllic it was under the filtered canopy of the trees. The only sound was the breeze ruffling the leaves and the chirping of the birds. I took time to soak it all in.
I ran into the aid station about M20, and seeking a sugar rush, I ate some junk food that did not sit well with me. Consequently, I suffered nausea for a few miles. Some fruit at the next aid sorted me out and I felt restored. We ran through mossy forests and pine needle floors with babbling brooks and dappled sunlight for company.
It seemed like all these miles were mere preamble to the climb back up the far side of Apple Orchard Mountain between M26-M29. “An hour for 3 miles” is how we were forewarned. I was not seriously challenged in the race until this leg. It was simply not runnable. The path was very tricky and rocky, and I had to watch my foot placements very carefully. I was enraptured by the frequent water courses, the water boiling over boulders and occasional tree limb in the creek. Some creeks we tip-toed across or splashed through, but the bigger streams were knee-deep and forced more careful steps. We passed several cataracts and a large waterfall in the middle portion of the climb. Additionally, several wooden or rock staircases totaling about 300 steps had to be climbed. Coming after 27miles of tough running, this was just torture. I was reminded of the stairs in the movie “The Exorcist.” In our battle with the mountain, we threw down a 28minute mile. Even as we finished with those flights, we were not done with climbing. There was another mile of zig-zagging up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The last 3 miles of trails and the final 2 miles on steep downhill gravel road were the final “quad killers”, if they weren’t already trashed. I felt my knees straining and I focused on not buckling or stumbling. I kept hoping for the gradient to ease, the campsite to appear and the finish line to speed up.
Paul and I played leap frog all day, passing each other frequently. We got separated in the final miles and finished about a minute apart in 7hrs 55mins. He was a true soldier for marching on despite burning quads and minimal training. I suspect Paul may be reluctant to follow me into the next trail race.
I made sure to soak up the scenery on the course, taking 80 photos along the way. The frequent stops to smell the roses helped me survive the day. Overall 8,220 feet of ascent/descent and 34 miles by my Garmin. Our rewards for a hard day on the trails – a nice lunch, gorgeous photos, a mental escape and a refreshed soul. Well, maybe a blister and some sore muscles too.
I cleaned up some duplicates and present the highlights below.
Thanks to Paul Hackley for trail companionship and story content, Sarah Humphrey for editing. Jim Nagle of RR also completed the race.
Photos: Click HERE