David Horton’s Promise Land 50K is my favorite 50K, despite the fact that I have yet to have a really good run there. The course is beautiful and has a good mix of difficult trails and easier grass and gravel roads. The course starts at the Promise Land camp, some 15 minutes or so from Bedford. Many people choose to camp there the night before, but we usually get a motel. The race has a very early start, 5:30 a.m., so if you have to arrive late on Friday night, you don’t get much sleep anyway.
The course starts out, in the dark, on a gravel road which climbs uphill, steadily at first, and then rather steeply. At that point you get on a section of trail that you run the other direction during Hellgate 100K. The trail continues to climb until it dumps you out on a grassy fire road that is for the most part downhill. This section is usually beautiful. The sun is coming up, the grass is very green and the dogwoods and redbuds are blooming. Except for this year, because of a late freeze. And last year, when the torrential downpour and constant flashes from the lightning kept me from seeing very much at all. Anyway, after that section (which has some Horton miles in it, miles that tend to be much longer than the traditional mile), you head uphill again on trail and an old logging road until you reach the Blue Ridge Parkway. Then you have a nice, long, gradual downhill on a maintained gravel road which takes you to the only point your crew has access to, the Sunset Fields overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The next section is my favorite section. It is downhill on rooty, rocky, single-track trail. It ends up on some old logging roads, and then back on single-track that has way too many little rocks that turn your ankles. You cross a creek a couple of times (which was a little difficult last year in the aftermath of the torrential downpour) and end up at an aid station at the start of a road section. The road section is long and flat and pretty boring, but you can make up some time here as it is easy to run. Then you’re back on single-track and old logging roads and a couple more aid stations until you end up at the bottom of Apple Orchard Falls. The climb up Apple Orchard has gotten easier for me every year, but it is by no means easy. It is towards the end of the run and you climb back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway on steep single-track on legs that are already tired. There is a nice waterfall there that you cross in front of, but I haven’t paid too much attention to it. Once you make it to the top, you’re back on the single-track and gravel road from the beginning of the race, only it is now all downhill.
I didn’t have a great experience at the race this year. The week before the Run for Africa, I injured my ankle and then my hamstrings. I ran the 95 miles at that race and then wasn’t able to recover fully before this race, two weeks later. I should have just run this race easy, but I didn’t. When I got towards the bottom of my favorite single-track section, my hamstrings had started to hurt badly and I was unable to stretch out my stride. As a result, I started getting passed by many people on the downhills, which usually doesn’t happen. On the flat road section, I really started to hurt and the rest of the race was spent going very easy on the downhills and trying to make up for it on the uphills. On the last long downhill stretch of the race, Mike Day (who had run at Run for Africa, then Crowder’s Mountain 50K the next weekend) passed me and told me I could still get my PR if I hurried. I looked at my watch with a mile left and only five minutes more to get my PR, or so I thought, and with my legs not cooperating, I just took it easy. It turns out that I was mistaken about my PR and missed it by only a minute. Oh well. There’s always next year.