(PHOTO COURTESY JAMIE WULFEKUHLE-ZAWESKI)
Virginia Adventures’ Freight Train Ultramarathon tests endurance runners
Dec. 11, 2021, is an unseasonably warm Saturday in Farmville, Va. Gusts of wind rattle the bare branches of the small trees in the town square behindWalker’s Diner, tousling the holiday lights draped around the robust Christmas tree keeping vigil over what would normally be a sleepy Saturday morning.
But there is no sleeping in on this day. A group of trail-running enthusiasts is gathering under the roof of the farmers market, 33 ordinary people about to complete an extraordinary feat. Here, they will start a 100-kilometer, or 62-mile, run along the High Bridge Trail in High Bridge Trail State Park. In another hour, 137 additional runners will gather in the same spot to complete a 50K, or 31-mile, race.
The annual event, organized by Virginia Adventures LLC, is known as Freight Train, and these runners have been training for months. It’s more than a marathon. It’s an ultramarathon.
TRAINING AND TOGETHERNESS
Lisa Allen, a veteran trail runner who has run hundreds of ultras, enjoys the community aspect. “It gets more fun the longer you go. The culture is great. The community is great. It doesn’t get any more painful; it gets more fun,” she says.
She and her husband arrived from Raleigh, N.C., the day before. Allen split her training mileage between biking and running, running about 60 miles per week, and biking between 50 and 60.
In contrast to Allen, Chris Pedi, who will place first in the 50K in 3:22:15, has never run an ultramarathon. His training was “nothing really out of the ordinary,” consisting of a weekly mileage in the mid 70s.
When I catch up with him at the finish line later in the day, he has showered and is eating a slice of pizza. “The race was beautiful,” he tells me. “I loved the course.” He explains that another runner ran about half of the race with him, helping to motivate him. “The community and camaraderie of running is the best,” he says.
StephanieMillholland, who hails fromHenrico, Va., agrees that the community is stellar. Relatively new to the sport, this is her fifth ultramarathon.
“It was intimidating at first, but then I realized these people are really nice. You can strike up conversations mid-race. It’s like family. You’re competing, but when you’re 15, 20, 25 miles into one of these, everyone checks in on each other.”
As she says this, another runner paces over and gives her an enthusiastic hug. Millholland laughs. “We all suffer together,” she says. She will complete the course in a shade under six hours.
OVERCOMING FEAR THROUGH FRIENDSHIP
I meet Ros (Diva) Hines-High just after she crosses the High Bridge, a 125- foot-high converted rail line that spans 2,400 feet over the Appomattox River. Hines-High is in her first
ultramarathon. She also is terrified of bridges. She credits, or perhaps blames, Sheree Bremner, running beside her; Cameron Herndon, her running coach jogging behind her; “and a whole bunch of other crazy people.”The three live in the Richmond-Hanover County area.
“I was like, ‘Of all things, why would you all pick something you know I hate?’” she says. But she doesn’t like to admit defeat and calls Bremner and Herndon her inspirations for traversing the span.
“These two have been with me since day one, so I feel if they say I can do it, then I can do it,” she says.When she saw Herndon waiting for her just before the bridge, she started to tear up, but she cautions me not to tell.
“I know I’m gonna finish. And then, I’m gonna get in my brown chair and watch TV. Do nothing, absolutely nothing,” she says. Hines-High will run again in a week to keep her base throughout the winter. In 2023, she wants to run her first 50-mile race.
“That’s really a crazy thought right now, but I have spoken it. Once it’s here,” she taps her head, “and it comes out my mouth, consider it done.” I remind her she will have to cross the High Bridge one more time before the finish line.
“I’m not crazy about that, but I just got through it, so I know I can do it.”
ORGANIZING AN ULTRAMARATHON
Preparing to put on a race is as arduous as training to run it. Race director Dan Pulskamp is no stranger to either. He had been involved in ultra-running for three years when he started Virginia Adventures in 2014. He put on his first race the following year.
“Planning for a race of this distance and size begins almost a year in advance,” Pulskamp says, “and I get very little sleep during race weekend.” The night before race day, he is lucky to get five hours of sleep. Race day, he gets about three hours.
Fortunately, a crew of volunteers assists Pulskamp with the race. Friends of High Bridge Trail State Park supplies him with 10 or so volunteers, and assists with check-in and the early aid stations, he says. The Pamplin Area Legacy Supporters take care of aid stations at the trail’s end and the turnaround.
As a member of the Friends of High Bridge Trail State Park, Ann Lignon helps with Freight Train. This year, she tends to the aid station in Rice, Va., where the turnaround for the 50K is located. It is also both the 8-mile and 14-mile mark for the 100K.
After the race, she tells me, “We went through two jars of pickles, but only the juice from one of the jars. I tell you, people were excited to see both.”
In addition to pickle juice, which Pulskamp says provides valuable sodium content, Lignon and fellow volunteers offered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Many other locals help out. In return, Pulskamp supports local businesses and artisans. “Every finisher receives a handcrafted piece of pottery made by Mainly Clay. This year, it’s a Christmas ornament. The top three male and female runners will receive handmade pottery, and often some adult beverages from Three Roads Brewing.”
But the prizes, aid station menu, distance and bridge are not the most impressive aspects of the race. “The most impressive element of these races are the runners, hands down,” Lignon says.
Hours after I met Hines-High and her friends on the trail, I see them stretching at their car, having completed the race. It took Bremner and Hines- High about 10 hours to complete the 50K.
Lignon is right, I think, remembering Hines-High’s fear of bridges. The runners are extraordinary.