I clambered up a long, steady rise out of the trees onto a wide field of grass and sand. Up ahead I would cross a road and descend back onto the woods for the final part of the loop. The sky was dimming and a cold breeze had started up
“You’re doing GREAT!” a woman’s voice shouted.
I looked around but saw no one. Was I hearing things? I was over eleven hours into the Dogwood 12-Hour race, and the way I was feeling right then, anything was possible. I was giving all I had to get through this final loop and hold onto third place.
Then someone burst out of the trees behind me. . .
The Dogwood is in the category of races measured by a fixed time, rather than a fixed distance. The most well-known is the 24-hour race, but there are shorter and faster varieties including 48 hours and even 72 hours.
These events usually take place on a short loop of road (such as one mile) or on a running track. Results are tracked by loops completed. Advantages include always having gear and refreshments close at hand, and relay team planning is simple, since each exchange takes place at the same point. Disadvantages include – well, sheer monotony – which is why I’d never run one. I like a variety of views and terrain in my ultras.
The Dogwood, however, caught my eye. I wanted an ultra around the end of March and the loop was on trail and decently long (3.4 miles). And it was in Virginia, meaning warmer weather and near where my daughter Tori lives. She even accepted my offer to pace me for a loop. Win!
I showed up at Twin Lakes State Park at 6:30 a.m. and was joined by a couple of relay teams and around 30 fellow solo runners suffering from the same condition – namely, that we find running all day something to look forward to.
I’d set a goal of 15 loops (50 miles) with an average 40 minutes per loop, which on paper would take ten hours. I would use the two remaining hours as cushion. Any extra loops would be gravy, and perhaps just enough to get into the top five.
We set off at 7:15, just as the sun was coming up over Godwin Lake. We ran along the shore for a bit, then up a gravel road and onto singletrack along rolling hills with a few long climbs and some fast downhills. There were a couple of stream crossings, which required nimble steps on the rocks to keep feet dry. Up to a road crossing, then back into the woods, one rooty section, then a final climb to the main park road for a downhill sprint to the finish. Quick stop at the aid station, then back out again.
I ran the first two loops with a nice chap named Alex. The morning was sunny and cool with soft, dry trail, absolutely perfect conditions for a race. My steps were light and easy, and the loops flew by. I lost track of him after that, and settled into running alone, maintaining an aggressive but sustainable pace.
Just as with the Land Between the Lakes 50, I felt terrific for the first third of the race. After five loops I was ahead of my goal pace. But I was beginning to feel subtle hints that things were going to get tougher. My legs were starting to complain on the downhills, and the bottoms of my heels were developing hot spots. I taped them more thoroughly and hoped for the best.
My loop times began to slip, but I held onto the 40-minute average until loop 12, at which time I was told I was in second place! Perhaps I’d have been better off not knowing, because I struggled on loop 13, with my slowest time by far. My mind began suggesting that fifteen loops would be quite enough, thank you, regardless of any extra time. Breaking through that mental wall would take some effort, but I’d deal with that if and when I got there.
At the aid station, I met up with Alex again. Turned out he was the leader, one full loop ahead of me. He offered me his company for the next loop, and I set off with renewed energy. Unfortunately, the third-place runner (Corey) had also picked it up, and at the top of the gravel road he caught up to us. Both he and Alex were feeling stronger than I was, and on the trail they politely excused themselves and took off. Well, then, third place would have to do.
Then, as I finished loop 14, there was Tori, all set to pace me for a loop. And so we ran loop 15 together. She’s a stronger hiker than a runner, but she gamely pushed through it. My one worry was that whoever was in fourth place would catch up. And about two-thirds of the way through the loop, someone ran by at a steady, deliberate speed.
Well, nuts. But what did it matter? A run with my daughter meant far more to me than a podium finish. And after this loop, with my 50 miles logged, I could quit! The clock read 10:30 as we came in. 90 minutes left, but with thoroughly fatigued legs and burning feet, I was happy to call it a race.
Just to be sure I wasn’t in podium contention, I checked with the scorer, who shook his head. “That guy who passed you is two loops behind,” he said. “You’re still in third.”
“So…I suppose I should get back out there,” I said, trying to sound upbeat about it. He agreed. “You’re looking strong!” Perhaps he was being kind, or perhaps I looked better than I felt, but he wasn’t helping me quit. Just one more, I promised myself. Just one more.
I pushed aside the physical and mental exhaustion and walked onto the sidewalk along the beach. Then, as with the previous fifteen loops, I began a slow jog. Final loop started; now just finish it.
By the clock I had plenty of time, but I still had no idea where the fourth-place runner was. So I ran it scared, at as quick a pace as I could muster. If I had to run this final lap when I’d already mentally checked out, then dammit, I needed something to show for it!
Then, more than halfway though, I heard the voice from nowhere. And as I crossed the road, ready to let it go as a mystery, someone came out of the rise and ran toward me. Fast. Smiling.
He was a kid, perhaps ten years old. Behind him came a woman I assumed to be his mother. Obviously her shout had been meant for him, not me. Such was my mental state that I checked them for race bibs! Seeing none, I finally relaxed and focused on just getting through the remaining mile. Loop 16 and 54.5 miles completed in 11 hours, 23 minutes. Fourth place was 14 loops. I needn’t have worried.
The bonk hit me fast and hard as soon as I’d finished. Sitting didn’t help, so I lay on the ground. Alex and Corey, bless them, looked after me and helped me stand back up at awards time. For my third-place finish I got a bottle of Tiramisu Stout. Tori and I split it. She helped, after all.
This was a small race but really well run and a lot of fun. More people should do this one; it’s a hidden gem among ultras. Dan, the race director, is hoping to turn it into a 24-hour race in the future, which may well make it more visible and popular. I hope so.