A “Recovery” Race – Holston River 36 Hour, Bristol, TN (August 4, 2017)

This race was my fifth timed ultra in my attempt to reach my 70 miles/7 ultras goal for this year. Surely with 36 hours, I would be able to do at least 70 miles! However, I knew as soon as I viewed the course that it would be a hard event for me. I now prefer to think of Holston River as an opportunity to challenge myself, meet some friendly people, and recover from the previous week’s race.

Bristol, Tennessee, borders Bristol, Virginia, and is a very long drive from Florida. Because packet pickup was Friday afternoon from noon to 5 pm, with the race starting at 8 in the evening, Darcy and I left on Thursday morning and spent the night in Greenville, SC, at the Hilton Garden Inn. Greenville is a prosperous community with lots of shops and restaurants and is a good mid-point for a road trip. We had a filling repast at Red Robin (love those sweet potato fries), enjoyed a relaxing night’s sleep, and then left around 9 am for Bristol.

We arrived at the race site just before noon and toured the course before checking in. That’s when I realized that this would be a very difficult race for me. Although I knew beforehand that the terrain was a mix of crushed gravel, dirt, grass, and pavement, I hadn’t realized that some pieces of gravel were the size of good-sized chunks and extremely hard on the feet. The real deterrent though was a slippery incline and descent on the first out-and-back. I had to slow way down and step sideways to maintain my balance in that section, all the while trying hard to stay out of the way of faster runners. Since the race began at night, I would have to maneuver my way through the darkness on a course where I knew I would be unstable.

In addition to the first out-and-back, there was a circular dirt and grassy area, and another out-and-back that went alongside a riverbank. While that was my favorite section because it was brief, mostly packed dirt, and cool and shady, it would still be treacherous for me at night, since I would have to skirt the river to avoid falling in!   I thought seriously about dropping down to a shorter time (there were 12 and 24 options) but decided that I might need all 36 hours to just get in a 50k! The weather was cloudy before the race but rainstorms were predicted for Friday evening and there was no protected area where I could escape any torrents.

After mulling all this over at an excellent dinner at Aubrey’s, a local restaurant, I decided to do at least one or two laps (each lap was 1.5 miles) while it was still semi-daylight. That way I could tally a few miles and get a good feel for the course. If I thought it was too hazardous for me to remain through the evening, I would spend the night at our hotel (a Hampton Inn) and come back at first light to do the best I could. I cautiously managed to do two laps with few problems but by 9:15, darkness fell with a vengeance. My flashlight did little to help me see the trail and I realized my careful steps were holding up faster runners. I called it a night and returned early Saturday morning.

Daylight certainly makes a huge difference. Now that I was familiar with the course and its vagaries, I could make my way around each lap with more confidence. I kept going strong from about 5:45 am to 1 pm, when Darcy came to give me a break. I sat in the car with my feet up for about 20 minutes, ate some lunch, and changed shoes and socks. The gravel hurt my feet, especially on those blisters from last week’s race that still had not healed completely. I only needed a few more miles to get a 50k so I suggested that Darcy return to pick me up around 4. In those few hours, I managed to reach a total of 37.5 miles. I realized early on that 70 miles was out of my reach; as long as I could attain at least 32 miles, I could count it in my statistics. At 4 o’clock on the dot, with Darcy waiting nearby with the van, I handed in my ankle chip to the timekeeper and said my thanks and goodbyes to Netta the race director.

It was then back to the hotel for a shower and rest, then back to Aubrey’s for another good dinner. We left for home early Sunday morning, after a long 11 hour drive.

There are lots of excellent things about this race but I probably won’t do it again. It should be self-evident to me by now that I don’t like trails and I don’t like races that begin in the evening. Nighttime trail races are anathema to me. So why did I sign up for this one? I guess I thought that 36 hours would give me enough time and I didn’t realize how precarious the course would be for a timid trail animal like myself.

But now that it’s over, I am glad I did it. There are lots of terrific aspects to this race, so walkers who enjoy trails and are not deterred by nighttime racing might find Holston River a good choice:

  • The RD knows her stuff and puts on a great event. Everything and everyone works together seamlessly
  • Chip timing was accurate and a large computer screen made it easy to check one’s mileage each lap
  • There were lots of helpful volunteers
  • The one aid station had a variety of food choices and options for meals were written on a white chalk board that was easy to read. I think all large ultras should follow suit; it makes it easy to see what will be available and when
  • There was another aid station with just water before the first out-and-back
  • While there were plenty of porta potties along the course, there were also real bathrooms and showers. The bathroom stalls had shower curtains instead of doors but that worked fine. I am always so grateful for real restrooms and running water!
  • I brought both trail shoes and road shoes and wore both. Trail shoes aren’t a necessity but I knew they would help me master the dirt and gravel, especially if rain made the course slippery. But gaiters are a must to keep out those rocks!
  • On Saturday some people began using trekking poles and that seemed a good idea. Too bad I didn’t have mine with me
  • To keep registration costs low, there is an option to purchase a shirt (which I did not do) but it’s available
  • Runners were given a small cooler with a bandanna inside, good for filling with ice and putting under your cap or around your neck
  • The finisher award is a can opener; how fitting is that for a brewery race?
  • I also won a door prize – a pair of socks (yea, I can always use another pair of socks!)
  • The group of runners and walkers were about the friendliest I have ever experienced
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