Promise Land 50k is the 3rd of the 6 races that comprise Beast Series and the last of the Beast 50k’s that make for a fast and furious Spring schedule. Last year I ran Promise Land while dealing with on-again off-again IT Band issues, so this year coming into the race healthy meant I could expect an entirely different experience. With the beauty of the course, the extremely stacked field and the awesome post-race party, I was greatly looking forward to this year’s race.
I carpooled down with Keith Knipling and Mario Raymond, two good friends who, in addition to giving me a run for my money at our weekly WUS runs, will be giving me a run for my money in this year’s Beast. Mario and Keith set up camp while I opted to sleep in the Element, a precautionary measure on my part given the forecasted showers for the entire weekend. Raindrops hitting the car woke me at various points in the night, but in morning the only evidence of rain was some humidity that would die off as soon as the sun rose.
At 5:30am the race started and we started the 2.6 mile climb up to the Overstreet Creek Road aid station (AS1). Not wanting to deal with a light for mostly just a climb, I followed other front-of-the-pack’ers who guided the way and set a nice fast pace. Jordan Whitlock and Jake Reed pushed the pace hard from the get-go and quickly faded into the distance as they took the lead. Seeing Jake, a first-time ultrarunner, running with Jordan and without a water bottle, I thought for sure that I would be seeing him later in the day keeled over on the side of the trail. Without giving too much away (ok, giving it all away), Jake went on to win his first ultra with a very impressive 4:49. I believe he scored a water bottle somewhere during the day, but that remains unconfirmed.
I did my best to stay true to my #5 bib seeding and held 6th place as we continued climbing, this time on trail, for another mile or so out of AS1. The sun poked its head out as I crested the first climb and started a 3-mile downhill section. Since I’m a heavier dude (compared to elite ultrarunners), I fly on the downs and can really gain some time with my gravitational advantage. I caught up with Jeremy Ramsey and Brian Schmidt after a bit, but as soon as an incline would come along they would pull away. The terrain became a rolling jeep road and we shuffled between 4th and 6th place for a few miles.
Around mile 8, while the 3 of us were running single file I caught a toe on a rock hidden by the overgrown grass. I faceplanted and impaled my left quad on another conveniently placed rock, resulting in a nice bloody gash across my thigh, a bloody knee, pebbles that I have yet to remove from my palms, and a throbbing sensation that came with every activation of my quad. I was worried that this acute injury to my quad, combined with the expected trashing of the quads that would come later in the day, might produce the perfect combination for rhabdomyolysis and consequently ruin another beautiful Promise Land for me. Thankfully the pain lessened over the next couple miles and I was able to pass through AS2 (mile 9.7) while continuing racing as planned. Rather than trying to ride their coat-tails, I decided I needed to run my own race and they pulled ahead out of sight.
The climb to Sunset Fields (AS3, mile 13.7) was rather uneventful, but afterwards we were greeted with a fun, fast and technical descent. This was my favorite section of the day. I love the adrenaline kick that comes from bombing down a steep technical section.
Somewhere around here, out of nowhere I passed Jeremy who has barely off trail taking care of business (TMI, I know). Since he was running shirtless and now had his shorts around his ankles, this crouched down naked muscular figure looked like the Terminator as it appeared from the lightning. Laughing, I said some choice words of encouragement and went about my business of running while he tended to his business of… not running. He caught back up shortly thereafter before we got to Cornelius Creek aid station (AS4, mile 17.8).
During a flattish road section Jeremy seemed to be slowing, talking about how he wasn’t feeling it today, so I upped the speed and did what I could to put a gap between us before the eventual monster climb up Apple Orchard Falls. Knowing that I am a stronger downhiller than a climber, I was positive that the climb up Apple Orchard Falls would be the determining play of the day where I would blow up and Keith, Mario, Jack, Micah and a slew of other great runners who were probably only minutes behind would leave me in the dust.
Shortly after Colon Hollow aid station (AS5, mile 20.8) you get a little bit of climbing as a precursor to the Falls. Right as this climbing was starting, Schmidty, Jeremy and Jonathan Bryant all blew by me. See? I had predicted that this was coming. The real climbing up Apple Orchard came as we left Cornelius Creek aid station for the second time (now AS6, mile 25.9). Getting to Cornelius Creek requires a brief out-and-back that lets you see who is immediately in front of and behind you. Schmidty and Jeremy were only a few minutes ahead and, to my surprise, there was no one on my tail.
Knowing that the fast guys were all saving their energy to dominate on this climb, despite the fact that I didn’t see them on the aid station out-and-back, I did my best to run as much of this climb as I could. This goes against the typical ultra rule of “walk the ups and run the rest”, but I am quickly learning that when in the front of the pack you don’t get to relish in as many walking breaks. Sigh.
This 3-mile climb starts out gradual with lots of small waterfalls to your left. Every hundred feet or so there was a large rock step that would throw you off pace. Then it got steep and technical, at times going over large boulders that required navigation on all fours. After you conquer the technical stuff you are rewarded with a beautiful big waterfall and a wooden boardwalk that goes around it. Last year I was taking my sweet time so I hung out here and relaxed for a bit. This year I was on a mission and instead I just made sure to turn my eyes from the trail to the Falls for a second. You gotta take what you can get, right?
Immediately after the Falls come the steps. These aren’t just any steps, these are 176 oddly-spaced steps that you must climb after running 29 miles. Fun! (Farouk told me there were 176, so I blame him if this count is off).
I saw Schmidty just ahead as we were both slogging through the steps. I caught up with him and, since there were only a few miles to go, figured that instead of battling it out for placement we could run the last few in together. We continued climbing together for a bit, but just before Sunset Fields (AS7, mile 29) he mentioned that he had a knot in his glute that needed some stretching and he didn’t want to hold me up. I told him to stay strong and continued on my way, back in 5th place.
I came into Sunset Fields extremely surprised that no one had caught me. Throughout the entire climb I had been looking back every minute or so to see who was in hot pursuit. I don’t know if it’s dumb luck, hard training or a combination of both, but at this point in the race there were only 5 miles of downhill to go and I could confidently say that I had my top-10 finish in the bag, much better than I had anticipated.
It was a quick 2.5 miles of descending trail to the last aid station, Overstreet Creek Road (AS8, mile 31.4). I blew right through without stopping and then came the painful 2.6 miles of steep downhill road to the finish. It’s painful because it’s so steep that it’s hard to NOT run sub-6 minute miles. I was running what seemed like 5k pace, not 50k, but I saw this as a good thing because ultimately it was some additional leg-trashing that will get me in better 100-miler shape.
The descent finally ended, I came across the field of the Promise Land Youth Camp and crossed the finish line in 5:07:40 and in 5th place overall. I honestly have no idea how I pulled this off, but it sure is a great feeling to come so far in less than 2 years of ultrarunning.
I was also awarded Best Blood for the gash across my thigh. In the end, I walked away with a pair of sweet Patagonia shorts that all finishers were awarded, an awesome embroidered Patagonia Nine Trails messenger bag for being a top-10 finisher, and a comfy red embroidered fleece blanket for Best Blood. I definitely got my money’s worth from my entry fee on this one.
After a quick “ice bath” in the stream and a shower, I thoroughly enjoyed hanging at the finish line and enjoying the post-race camaraderie. Everyone and their mother runs this race (roughly 300 runners), so there were plenty of VHTRC, West Virginia, Lynchburg and Pennsylvania friends in attendance.
I really love this race.