Bel Monte 50 Mile, Sherando Lake, Virginia

Elevation Gain: 11,009'; High Point: 3560'

March 28 , 2009 - The first race of the season after a winter of rest and one month of preparation was greeted with excited anticipation and expectancy. For a fair weather athlete like myself, the month of March is not one you can count on for the best of weather and trail conditions. My memory serves to remind me that I have experienced twenty below zero temperatures with wind chill only twenty miles north of the Bel Monte course in Shenandoah National Park at the end of March while backpacking there over spring break many, many years ago. At least it would not snow on this day, but 100% humidity combined with a chilly wind on the ridges would freeze my soaked body to the bone to add challenge to completing the exercise.

The forecast for Saturday's event was rain and lots of it. If the drive to the start was any indication, the forecast was right on. But the rain stopped when Mike Monyak, who would crew for me, and I arrived. I quickly made a decision on what to wear in the nearly fifty-some degree mild temperatures, anticipating that I would be wet from the high humidity and sweat, even if it didn't rain, which proved correct.

Bel Monte Start

Over 300 competitors in the 25K, 50K, and 50M events started together from the dam of the beautiful Sherando Lake, gently blanketed in early morning mists. I quickly took up with a couple other runners I met at the start line in the barely visible light of the 6:30 a.m. beginning. The wide start quickly gave way to congested single track on White Rock Falls Trail for the climb in the woods to the first aid station at mile 4.6. All systems were go and chatter among the contestants was abundant. I was more sore in my shoulders and hips than I would like to have been, perhaps from the drive down from Pennsylvania, but I settled into a comfortable pace as the trail gradually climbed about 650 feet over logs and stream beds. The ground was wet, but didn't seem to slow anyone much. We breezed through the first aid station without need to stop. Mike had barely gotten there to offer words of encouragment before I sped past with the group I was moving with.

Bel Monte Elevation Profile

After a steep downturn in the trail the next 2.7 miles climbed over 1200 feet to the high point on the course at the Camp Marty Bald Mountain aid station at 7.3 miles. The climb was achieved without much duress. I bypassed my only drop bag here to continue on the gradually descending jeep trail on the other side that would drop about 1700 feet along Kennedy Ridge to the next aid station at the bottom where the trail runs into Coal Mountain Road. Footing was dicey with many exposed rocks and roots in the ruts of the jeep trail. My only fall of the event happened here as I caught my toe and did a single somersault to end up back on my feet, shaken but none the worse for the few scrapes. A fall this early serves to add caution to the pursuit, so I backed off a bit and became more mindful of my foot plants.

Rolling into the Kennedy aid station at mile 13.1 at the bottom, Mike was waiting again with words of encouragement. He had a reserve bag of supplies and clothing in the event I needed something at this point. While I didn't need anything it was nice to have the support of a trusted friend. He would be here again when I passed this way later and I might need something then.

I was cruising along at a 5 mph pace over rough terrain without strain to this point, neither gaining nor losing ground to other participants. The course followed the wide smooth Coal Mountain Road up and down for few miles before cutting back another jeep trail to the next aid station at Turkey Pen at mile 17.4. The pretty girls at this aid station were engaging and very encouraging, after which the 50-milers separated friom the 50K contestants and diverted up a dog leg route over a steep climb before returning to Turkey Pen at mile 22.2. In the middle of this five-mile stint we had to retrieve a password at the turnaround - Frannie is Cool - and communicate that upon our return as proof of covering the distance. It was during this section, around mile 20, that I began to come unwound and begin to be passed by other runners. I hit 20 miles in exactly four hours, but then gradually slowed.

When you break down in these events there is not much you can do except exercise patience and practice "relentless forward progress", falling back on a comfortable ultra shuffle. From Turkey Pen the trail would zigzag across several streams as it climbed, at first gradually, then very steeply, back to the top of Bald Mountain at mile 27.2. Arriving here after mostly walking the long steep climb the time was 12:30 p.m. - six hours since the start. My pace had fallen below four miles per hour as I refueled for the second half of the race and grabbed a dry cap and handkerchief.

I was only 25 minutes ahead of the cutoff at this point. Had I taken a half hour longer to reach Camp Marty the second time around, I would have been pulled from the competition. This is the first and only time I have ever been under the gun to stay ahead of cutoff parameters. Feeling the pressure, I shuffled down the hill the way I had just climbed, back the five miles to Turkey Pen at mile 32.2, gaining only ten minutes on the cutoff.

Still feeling the urgency of potentilly not making a cutoff, I continued to quick step it as much as possible as I backtracked on the smooth Coal Mountain Road to the Kennedy aid station. I had been chilled for some time now, having run in soaked clothing for many hours. Mike ran me down at Kennedy and gave me one of my vests to protect against the wind to preserve core warmth.

By Kennedy I had increased my advantage against the cutoff time to one hour, so I was feeling a little better as I began the long climb back up the rough jeep trails to Camp Marty with the accompaniment of a young lady named Jessi from New Jersey. Our idle chatter served to distract each of us from the climb and chilly conditions. As we were able to run more than walk I warmed; but she finally continued on as I reached the top, taking nearly two hours to cover the 5.8 miles of climb.

By now I was starting to eat potato chips at the aid station and drink Mountain Dew and Coke to supplement my own provisions of Perpetuem and FRS. The varied flavors were a welcome flavor contrast. As I departed Camp Marty for the final time with eight miles to the finish and three hours to get there, I felt confident, knowing most of the trail was downhill, that I would finish well within the time limit of 13 hours. As fragged as I felt, there was no urgency to increase my pace to hold ground against other competitors who might pass me. If I ran more than walked it was to keep warm. The wind on the ridge was very chilling and finally it rained for a couple hours. I was as numb from cold and hypothermic coming across the ridge as at any time all day.

A ridge is a ridge because it is made of rocks that have resisted weathering better than the surrounding landscape. Throughout the Appalachian Mountains all ridges are much the same - they are extremely challenging to negotiate by foot, and especially so after the feet have been taking a beating for over forty miles. I exercised extreme caution so as to not fall on the steep, slippery rocks of the descent, all the while protecting my sore left heel from the shock of a misstep. It seemed to take forever to follow the ridge and finally drop down to the road and aid station at the bottom, a mere 2.4 miles from the finish. The footing was so tenuous during this stage that I concluded that the trails on this course were tougher than those of the Massanutten Mountain Trail course, famously known as one of the toughest ultra courses in the East.

The last segment was gentle as it mostly followed pavement up and around Lake Sherando to the finish. I took my time and enjoyed the scenery here, as all of the views at overlooks to this point had been occluded by fog and cloud cover. I rolled across the finish line three minutes beyond twelve hours to finish as winner of the 50-59 age category and 31st place of only 43 finishers of 103 starters, a testament of the difficulty and challenge of the course. The remaining crowd of supporters was extremely vocal and appreciative of each finishing athlete, giving them their full due for the considerable achievement of finishing this most difficult course.

Aside from my sore left heel, I was not exhausted, nor were my legs sore, probably because of keeping to a slow, steady pace for the second half. Mike and I lingered for twenty minutes or so, eating a bit and socializing with the abundance of pretty girls at the finish. After changing into something dry, chauffeur Mike drove us back home to Pennsylvania. After a much-needed shower at home, I finally crawed into bed at 2:30 a.m. to resume running in my dreams, while my body rested.

Bel Monte is certainly one of the harder courses I have done to date, and one of the more difficult running challenges I have yet engaged in. Thinking back, it gives me pause to know I have two more very tough 50's to race in the next few weeks, so I'll need to do what it takes to face similar challenges twice again - soon.

Approaching first aid station at Bel Monte 50M


Crossing the finish line at Bel Monte 50M

Bel Monte Map