John Robinson faces the ups and downs – literally and metaphorically – of ultra racing at Holiday Lake State Park in Virginia. 

About 6 miles into the race there’s a creek crossing where feet immersion is mandatory. The air temp is a bracing 18 degrees, so the ice water is especially invigorating. I splash through the calf-deep pool abreast of Josh, with Matt just behind. We’re feeling good and chatting about this and that, while keeping up what I’d call a respectable pace. Conditions are great — the course is predominantly smooth, rolling singletrack and it’s dry, occasional creek crossings notwithstanding. Yeah, we’re going to cruise this thing. It’s an hour later and I’m not feeling so much that “we” — as in I — will “cruise” the course today. Josh and Matt are slipping away from me — on a good day I can hang with them and I truly thought that this was going to be one of those days. I’m having a hard time keeping pace. Others also slowly gain on me and pass, often running with me for a few minutes before pulling ahead. They’re all friendly, the camaraderie of ultra trail racing being no exception here at the Holiday Lake 50K.

I’m competing in the twentieth running of the event, an ultra held at Virginia’s Holliday Lake State Park. I had arrived last night in time for race check-in and to get my Honda Element situated for its role as camper for the night. The weather forecast was for clear and cold overnight, down to 15 degrees or so, but I would surely be cozy in the car with my assortment of various pads and sleeping bags. I had gotten everything set up just right, laying out race things for today’s early am start. Shoes, socks, shorts with race number pinned on just so, favorite technical race tee, fleece zip neck, Grindstone 100 beanie cap, thin gloves, Gorilla tape for my nipples. And stashed in my hydration pack along with the 1.5-liter water bladder were my super light Hoodini jacket and a few Cliff bars and gels. And some toilet paper of course.

Race director David Horton led the shenanigans at the pre-race dinner and briefing at race headquarters, the park’s 4H Center. Lots of excited faces shared anticipation and laughs over voluminous plates of delicious spaghetti and lasagna. Friends old and new caught up with each other, and all looked forward to today’s race. I got to sleep pretty early, hunkered down in the Element, after my requisite few-minutes-at-least of reading, this time from a book on nineteenth century polar exploration. “The HL 50K is a relatively easy ultra,” you might hear a veteran say, due to the rolling non-mountainous nature of the terrain of the Virginia piedmont course. Whatever. I’d say don’t fall for that line, because all you’ll hear is the “easy” part, and then you might be getting into a little trouble. The first time I ran the race there was 8 inches of snow on the course, and the nature of said precipitation changed diabolically throughout the day, from hard crust to muddy slop. It was miserable. And even when it’s dry…well it’s not so easy.

The race started at 6:30 am in the cold dark, bringing to a close the chaos of the previous hour. I had risen and quickly dressed in the freezing Element with that familiar what-am-I-doing-here feeling. I choked down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and forced a half liter of water. Then bathroom business. And second-guessing my choice of clothing. Stumbling to the starting line, we raised an off-key version of the national anthem and the race was on. Yea! Headlamps, essential for the first several miles, bob-bobbed off into the dawn. I’m slogging along now, alone and looking forward to Aid Station 3 where Hannah and her cheerful cohorts will encourage me with their great smiles, not to mention their candy. My water bladder tube is frozen solid and I haven’t been able to drink from it since pulling it out of my womb-like sleeping bag early this morning. So I carry an inaccessible bag of water on my back, and hydrate at aid stations. Oh well.

The Holiday Lake 50K course consists of a 16-mile loop which returns the racers to the starting point where they then reverse the route to arrive back at the same place for the finish. It works very well. By the time I arrive at the turnaround point my wife Marybeth and son Taylor are there to greet me and send me back, “inbound” to the finish now. Race director Horton exclaims that I’m the first “old man,” that is age 50+. But no, that’s not true — my “old man” friend Matt is a few minutes ahead of me at this point. That gap would grow as the race wore on and I wore out. Way to go Matt! So it’s working out to be not my best race, this “easy” 50k. Heehee! Nevertheless I take in the beauty of the course -the orange glow sunrise was amazing- and I make sure to appreciate the folks out there with me, volunteers and racers alike.

An out-and-back course like HL allows each racer to pass face-to-face everyone else at some point. It is always cool for me to see those fast front-runners on their inbound return trip, and I calculate about how far behind them I am and how that distance will only increase as the miles to the finish unfurl. Holding solid to first place is Shaun Pope, who offers me a hearty, “good job!” as he trots by. In the small, eccentric world of ultra running camaraderie is affirming, and encouragement and inspiration is freely shared by all. I certainly get a further morale boost, along the beautiful Lakeshore Trail part of the course particularly, as I pass friends and we exchange brief words of connection and encouragement, including of course the occasional “Hey loser!”

Returning to Aid Station 3 I fuel on banana and what looks like pieces of Milky Way. Good, but actually I’m not that hungry and don’t have my usual mid-race appetite. I head out again feigning competence and optimism and accompanied by another racer…hey! it’s my buddy Jeff. What a nice surprise. He just turned 50 last year and I’ve welcomed him into the Grand Master category. We run together for an hour talking, covering a broad array of topics, before I send him on ahead of me. I’m having trouble shifting into a higher gear and I can’t hang with Jeff; he’s strong and relaxed and now he’s disappearing around the bend up ahead. Go Jeff!

The remainder of the race I feel like I’m slowly grinding to a halt. I just hope the finish comes before then. Every few minutes someone passes me. They give me encouragement and rocket on. At least it seems to me that they “rocket on”. I’m not overtaking anyone myself; my machinery is breaking down. A bit of bonus discomfort occurs when only a few miles from the finish I have to succumb to the urge to “go behind a tree,” and not just for a quick leak. I’d hoped I could make it to the finish before that. Oh well.

The sun is shining brightly now, the sky brilliant blue as I emerge from the trees and onto the hard surface road to gallop the remaining .7 mile of the course. What’s that I feel a spring in my step! From within my weary body wells up a fount of freshness and I virtually fly down the road and through the finish chute and under the banner to the generous cheers and congratulations of the folks gathered there. I’m forty-ninth place overall out of what turns out to be 236 finishers. My time is 5:04:48. I could pout that I coulda shoulda run faster and stronger and finished higher up in the standings but you know what? It feels so good to be living in the moment, as fully as I can, surrounded by cheery -ok nutty- souls with warm hearts on this chilly gorgeous day that I’m just -above all- feeling super grateful.

Relaxing in my post race reverie I see my friend Michelle approaching the finish line. It’s her first ultra and she’s ecstatic to be finishing it. She made it. I make my way to her to offer a hug and my congratulations, passing on to her what so many have conveyed to me, the bond, that is, of a kindred spirit.