Race Report: 2008 Promise Land 50K

At the finish of the Promise Land 50K

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Promise Land finish

Bill Potts, David Horton, and Sophie Speidel at the finish of the Promise Land 50K.

David Horton’s Promise Land 50K is a rite of Spring for many ultrarunners on the East Coast. This beautiful course climbs up and over the Appalachian Mountains from the East, crosses into the Shenandoah Valley, and then returns up and over back to the start. In typical Horton fashion, nothing is easy. The run crosses the Blue Ridge at Apple Orchard Mountain (4,225 feet), the tallest mountain in central Virginia (headed South to North, this point is also the last time the Appalachian Trail rises above 4,200 feet until New England).

Typically held the last weekend in April, it is also a feast for nature lovers. While Spring has sprung in the valleys it is still Winter on the ridges, where the flora up high have yet to sprout and bloom. Runners are magically transported several weeks in time as they climb and descend. The lack of foliage also means that the panoramic views from the mountaintops are largely unobstructed.

While the race is undeniably difficult, Horton allows a generous 10-hour cutoff, meaning anyone with the will to finish can. It is this unique combination of beauty, difficulty, and accessibility that makes Promise Land a universal favorite for anyone who has done it.

Course description

GPS track and altitude profile

A perspective view of the course is shown below. See the course in Google Maps For an interactive view. To see it in 3-D, download this Google Earth file (requires Google Earth to view, a free download).

GPS track of the Promise Land 50K

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GPS track of the Promise Land 50K

Perspective view of the Promise Land 50K course looking northeast from the Shenandoah Valley. The data were recorded with a Garmin Forerunner 305 during the 2008 event.

The corresponding altitude profile of the run is shown below. The 7,300 feet of climb is what I measured in 2007 using a Polar S625X heart rate monitor; the measured altitude from the Garmin Forerunner 305 (which is derived from GPS trilateration) is not as precise as the barometric altimeters used in the Polar HRMs.

Promise Land 50K altitude profile

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Altitude profile of the Promise Land 50K

Altitude profile of the Promise Land 50K, recorded with a Garmin Forerunner 305. The race is 34 miles long, with 7,300 feet of climb. The locations of the eight aid stations are also indicated.

Course narrative

The race begins with a steep “in-your-face” climb of 2,300 feet during the first 4 miles. It starts on a gravel road, which gets progressively steeper toward the top. At the first aid station (AS 1, Overstreet Creek Road, mile 2.6), the course turns onto the double-track Glenwood Horse Trail which switchbacks up and over the ridge of Onion Mountain (3,600 feet) near mile 4. Down the other side, the course traverses the eastern flank of the Blue Ridge for the next 5 miles, offering expansive views to the east of the Virginia Piedmont below. The smooth running surface, and overall downhill inclination, make for some fast running between AS 1 and AS 2.

After AS 2 (Reed Creek, mile 7.1), the course leaves the Glenwood Horse Trail and climbs up to the crest of the ridge, crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway near the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain. This is the highest point of the course (4,050 feet). From there, it’s a nice runnable fire-road descent down to AS 3 (Sunset Fields, mile 13.7).

Sunset Fields

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Sunset Fields

The view to the west from AS 3 (Sunset Fields, mile 13.7) on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is also a trailhead for day hikes down to Apple Orchard Falls.

After taking in the breathtaking view of the Shenandoah Valley to the West, runners leave Sunset Fields and begin a 4.1-mile plummet on moderately technical single-track. This is the most beautiful part of the course, particularly the descent along the cascading Cornelieus Creek.

The midpoint of the run is AS 4 (Cornelius Creek, mile 17.8). Most runners can double their split time here for an accurate projected finishing time. The aid station, situated at the trailhead to Apple Orchard Falls, is revisited 8.1 miles later before the last major climb of the day. From AS 4, the course runs down a runnable dirt road for 2 miles, and then turns off onto the single-track Whitetail Trail. From there it’s another mile to AS 5 (Colon Hollow, mile 20.8).

The next 5.1 miles follow meandering grassy fire-roads through dense forest. Most of this section is gradually uphill, finally topping out at 2,000 feet. The last mile is a runnable descent along a small creek back to AS 6 (Cornelius Creek, mile 25.9).

Apple Orchard Falls

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Apple Orchard Falls

The main falls, as seen from the viewing platform along the trail.

The good news is that there are only 8 miles to go from Cornelius Creek to the finish, most of which are downhill. The bad news is that there is a 3-mile 2,000-foot climb first. The climb goes straight up a ravine, paralleling North Creek most of the way. Two-thirds of the way up the climb, the trail passes right under Apple Orchard Falls, a multi-tier cascade down a sharp cliff some 150 feet high. The National Forest Service has constructed wooden bridges with viewing platforms here, and have reinforced the nearby trail with several hundred wooden steps (the steps are spaced just-so that you’ll wish you had spent more time on the Stairmaster in the gym). Things level off a bit above the falls, before a final steep pitch up to the ridge at AS 7 (Sunset Fields, mile 29.0).

Leaving Sunset Fields, you are legitimately “home free.” After a short climb up to the crest of Onion Mountain, runners retrace their initial steps down the Glenwood Horse Trail and down the gravel road to the finish. It’s the fastest 5 miles I know of in ultrarunning.

The run is summarized in the table below, which lists split and cumulative mileages that I measured for the aid stations, as well as my split times. The total distance that I measured was 34.0 miles, which is somewhat longer than the 31.75 miles Horton claims in the detailed course description. Most of the discrepancy occurs between AS 1 and AS 2 (which is 1.1 miles longer than advertised) and AS 2 and AS 3 (which is 0.7 miles long).

Measured mileages and split times for the 2008 Promise Land 50K
Aid station Distance (mi) Time (mm:ss)
  Split Cumulative Split Cumulative
Start 0 0 0 0
AS 1 (Overstreet Creek Rd) 2.6 2.6 0:27:30 0:27:30
AS 2 (Reed Creek) 7.1 9.7 1:01:53 1:29:23
AS 3 (Sunset Fields) 4.0 13.7 0:34:22 2:03:45
AS 4 (Cornelius Creek) 4.1 17.8 0:31:33 2:35:18
AS 5 (Colon Hollow) 3.0 20.8 0:24:42 3:00:00
AS 6 (Cornelius Creek) 5.1 25.9 0:24:42 3:00:00
AS 7 (Sunset Fields) 3.1 29.0 0:46:10 3:46:10
AS 8 (Overstreet Creek Rd) 2.4 31.4 0:18:39 4:51:05
Finish 2.6 34.0 0:16:27 5:07:32

Race report

Sean Andrish took things out hard from the get-go and was out of sight within the first quarter mile. I train 20–30 miles a week with Sean, but I’ve never seen him go like that in our weekday runs. Apparently our “speedwork” and “hillwork” days are his recovery days.

I hoped to keep contact with the rest of the lead group on the road, but slowly drifted back within a couple of miles. I was more concerned with taking this first climb relatively easy (hoping to save some for later), and I even walked several hundred meters near the top. Near the top of the road I caught up with Harland Peelle, and we came into the first aid station together (neither of us stopping).

Running from AS 1 to AS 2 had a feeling of déjà vu, as this section was also in last month’s Terrapin Mountain Marathon and, once again, I was doing it with Harland. By the time we reached AS 2 we had opened up quite a gap — at least half a mile — on the field behind us. Similarly, there was no one in sight up ahead. We seemingly had the course to ourselves.

Harland and I ran more-or-less together until AS 4 (Cornelius Creek, mile 17.8), at which point I opened up a small gap on the gravel road after the aid station. Shortly after turning onto the single-track Whitetail Trail, I ran into David Horton, who was out marking course, coming the opposite way. He indicated that I was in seventh place, with Chris Reed about 2 minutes up ahead and fading. I was very comfortable with my position, as a top-ten finish seemed quite secure at this time, and really had no interest in racing.

Harland had been out of sight for the last mile or so, but it wasn’t until AS 5 (Colon Hollow, mile 20.8) that I realized just how far back he was. I was about a minute out of the aid station when I heard the volunteers cheering and ringing cowbells heralding Harland’s arrival. With this sizable gap, and Chris “just up the road,” I decided now was the time to (quoting cycling commentator Phil Ligget) “turn the screws” on Harland and try to reel in Chris. The trail traverses in an out of several small ravines in this section, enabling runners to see up to a quarter mile ahead and behind. I never saw Harland again, and I never caught Chris. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the present situation was remarkably similar to the finish at the Terrapin Mountain Marathon, where Chris and Harland finished, respectively, just ahead and just behind me.

There is a short 200 meter out-and-back spur to AS 6, and it was here that I first saw Chris. He was leaving the spur as I was entering it — within striking distance for sure, but still a healthy lead nonetheless. I was actually more interested in how close Harland — and anyone else — was behind me. As I turned up the trail to start the climb up Apple Orchard Falls, I saw Harland on the way into the spur. Chris was closer.

I was still “running my own race” on the climb up Apple Orchard, when I finally saw Chris in one of the switchbacks above the main falls, perhaps one mile from the top. I was running sections he was walking, and steadily gained on him over the next half mile. By the time I passed Chris, another runner, wearing orange shorts and no shirt, was visible up ahead. This was Christopher Clarke, who I caught as we entered AS 7 (Sunset Fields, mile 29.0).

A third runner, Jordan Whitlock (running his first ultra), was in the aid station when we arrived. I believe he had been running in second place, but the climb up Apple Orchard had taken its toll. Christopher Clarke and I left the aid station together, running in fourth-fifth place now. He took the point, but on the short climb up Onion Mountain I made a concerted effort to pass him. My goal was to get out of sight on the trail section, as I did not want to have to race anyone once we got to the road. While I looked back several times down the last descent, I never saw anyone again. I ended up finishing fourth, setting a PR of 5:07:32 and taking over 13 minutes off of last year’s time.

Heart rate

The graph below displays my heart rate during the race. Superimposed on this plot are my estimated heart rate training zones: zone 1 (117–131 bpm), zone 2 (132–145 bpm), zone 3 (146–160 bpm), zone 4 (161–174 bpm), and zone 5 (175+ bpm).

Heart rate profile

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Heart rate profile

Heart rate versus distance for the 2008 Promise Land 50K, recorded with a Garmin Forerunner 305. Background colors represent heart rate zones (zone 1, zone 2, zone 3, zone 4, zone 5).

The majority of the race was spent in zone 3 and zone 4, which is also evident in the histogram of the heart rate data shown below.

Heart rate histogram

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Heart rate histogram

The overall mean heart rate, μ, is 160.1 bpm and the standard deviation, σ, is 6.3 bpm. Estimated percentages of maximum heart rate (MHR) are also shown for reference. The dotted curve is an ideal Gaussian distribution.

The histogram shows a normal distribution, with the most frequent heart rate near the mean (μ = 160.1 bpm) and the other data spread evenly about this central peak. That there are no significant gaps or extraneous peaks, and because the overall spread is reasonably narrow (σ = 6.3 bpm), indicates that I was able to maintain a consistent effort throughout the race. There is also a significant peak at 162 bpm (over 18% of the race was spent at this heart rate). This is well below my estimated anaeorobic threshold, and the fact that this heart rate was so resonant probably indicates that this tempo is a good “sweet spot” for me.

Final word

Somewhere up on the Blue Ridge, amidst the lush green forests and the joyful twittering and chirping of songbirds, I realized that, for me, there are certain races epitomize the seasons here in the mid-Atlantic. Nothing embodies the muggy summer days like Kevin Sayer’s Catoctin 50K. For Fall, it’d have to be David Horton’s Clark Zealand’s Mountain Masochist 50M, which traverses the mountains just north of here during their peak fall color. I’ve never run in colder weather than at Dennis Herr’s TWOT 100 in February. And when I think of spring in Virginia — green leaves, budding wildflowers, swollen streams, and a symphony of songbirds — Promise Land is the thing that comes to mind. It’s a race that really puts our beautiful mountains on display, and is certainly one of my favorites.

One Response to “Race Report: 2008 Promise Land 50K”

  1. Andy Earl says:

    Very informative report keith. really impressed with the map

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