by John Prohira
"By the summer of 1861 Wilmer McLean had had enough. Two great armies were converging on his farm for what would be the first major battle of the Civil War. Bull Run or Manassas as the Confederates called it would rage across the aging Virginian’s farm, a Union shell going so far as to explode in the summer kitchen. Now McLean moved his family from Manassas, far south and west of Richmond and out of harm’s way he prayed to a dusty little crossroads called Appomattox Courthouse. And it was there in his living room, three and one half years later that Lee surrendered to Grant. McLean could rightfully say that the war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor"-- a quotation taken from the opening of Ken Burn's Civil War .
The Holiday Lake 50K++ is a trail run that takes place very near where Wilmer McLean watched the war end and where I spent last weekend. This is a course that is measured in Horton miles. Dr. David Horton teaches at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., directs and is responsible for this ultra run. At Liberty, Horton teaches exercise physiology and physical fitness, including classes in exercise prescription and another in running. Infamous for staging 33 mile 50K's and long 50 mile ultraruns through the Virginian forests and countryside, Horton has also been one of our country's finest ultrarunners for many years. In 1991-he thru-hiked/ran the entire length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, a distance of 2100 miles in 52 days and nine hours which translates into an average of 38+ miles/day for ~ 10-12 hours/day. What to me appeared more impressive about this man of many accomplishments was the way in which he seemed to celebrate his God, his life and relate to his students. Among the 155 runners at this race's start were at least a dozen of his students. I've run a few long races and it is unusual to see as many young people as signed on to run on Saturday. This man and teacher was helping to guide these young people at the beginning of their adulthood, inspiring them through example and with his attention. This is indeed a beautiful thing to see.
The start and finish of the race is at the Holiday Lake 4-H Educational Center in the 19,000- acre Appomattox-Buckingham State Forest. Here at 6AM, one half hour before the race's start Horton and a couple of cronies could be heard welcoming us with their singing, .....ahh. . . um.. . The Star Spangled Banner. Well a close enough rendition. The course consists of two loops around and through the forests surrounding the Lake. At the end of the first loop the runners turn around and retrace their steps, run the course in the opposite direction. This sounded to me like being very fair and honest. The course would have appealed to my wise old grandmother, who was fond of sayings like, "what goes around comes around " and that "there's no free lunch". What was downhill the first time around was uphill on the return trip. The terrain was described as being shady with rolling hills consisting of trails, forest service and dirt roads, nothing technical.
It rained for most of the 9-˝ hour trip to Appomattox from LeRoy and continued until the early hours of Saturday. It was with great relief to all of us that the storm moved on before race's start. It was said that it had never rained during this race any year it's been staged. But there was mud on some of the dirt road and trails, not the shoe sucking type but heavy enough. On the return trip, most of the worst muddy sections had dried some due to the foot traffic and the brisk breezes. Mud laden shoes were offered four chances to clean up, well not offered really, for there wasn't much choice, two streams had to be crossed, twice. Water crossings without the luxury of steppingstones. Nothing like 40-degree water ankle to knee deep to put a spring in your step! It was a pretty but brisk winter day south of the Mason-Dixon Line with temperatures ranging between 40 and 50. The sun rose above us in the bluest of skies dappled with sparse high clouds. The race began at 6:30 and we entered the trail in the pre dawn after running about 1/4 of a mile of uphill on paved road. This uphill was appreciated at race’s end when you guessed it. . . the course was gloriously down and down to the finish. We seemed to travel as one, huddled together, politely biding our time until the opportunity arose to spread out. It takes a while for the field to sort itself out on this type of trail run but patience is a virtue and the chance to run will come sooner than one thinks.
Soon after came forest road with signs of controlled burn on both sides of us. The younger and smaller of the pines in the forest appeared to have needles more lime green in color rather than the conventional pine greens I'm familiar with. Was this winter foliage or the cleansing aftermath of the fire, I've read the pine forests are quite resilient to fires and can actually benefit from them because competition is killed off. The moss growing on rocks in the shady sections of our run also looked paler green in appearance more yellow in color. Should you wonder why I speak of moss and such it's because I see a lot of ground cover while trail running, that's where my eyes spend much of the time, looking at the trail for obstacles, the odd rock or downed tree here or there. It was warmer among the trees, out of the wind. Away from that protection, out in the open the price paid for feeling the full sun was the cooling effects of the wind. At about the 8 mile point we entered a high meadow filled with rows of young pine trees. This looked like a well maintained orchard. I was puzzled yet pleased by the sight of so many trees so meticulously cared for. On the return trip a sign was seen describing the pine filled meadow as a seed farm. A guess that would be a pinecone orchard?
The race was challenging but not overwhelming. As always the people met are what is most memorable All the Liberty students running and working aid stations were cheerful, helpful and a joy to be around. A most able and capable group, completely up to the task undertaken. I talk to everyone and mentioned to one gentleman who appeared to have an Indian heritage of how beautiful I thought the dawn. His reply was, "It is God". And I guess that just about sums it up.
My race ended just before 1 PM. Just in time for a lunch of fried chicken, potatoes with gravy and salad. I like the sense of community felt in this environment, 155 runners plus race workers seeming to be of one mindset. It's nice to see the familiar faces not seen since the last long run and others met for the first time.
It wasn't the longest of races but one deemed worthy of attention. How far is 50K++? It doesn't matter. At the end of race we found ourselves back at the start. At the end but ready to begin again, to return to real life. And I'm certain that I will return here again for the rewards of running in the southern forest and of being among like-minded souls. I think about of a lot of stuff while running through the woods. Stuff bounces around between my ears and what I attempt to describe and share is often full of the sentimental.
As you can tell by the start of this tale that I'm fascinated with beginnings and ends. This April, 300 of us will line up in Manassas to run along Bull Run where America's war started over 100 years ago. Shelby Foote, the Civil War scholar has said that that War defined us as Americans, defined as what and who we are. Maybe so. Appomattox was where it ended and where our country began again, anew, where it began to heal. While moving beneath the trees I thought of this stuff, and of the forest, protected and nurtured through fire, of life ended so other life could begin or continue. Of cycles. And memories of the year 2000 came back to me, a year that had proved challenging both spiritually and physically, with all aspects of my life being affected. Yet I'm convinced that there was worth in those struggles and in any struggle. Convinced that life is cyclical, beginning, end and beginning again. I've a friend who is a stargazer. He talked to me one morning about vast distances and of time and space. He said that if you looked long and hard enough through a telescope you would eventually realize that you were looking at the back of your own head. Deep? Profound? I don't know but all of these ideas appeal to me. And it's during long times running on the trail that I'm given the opportunity to think these thoughts. And somehow it makes so much sense to recognize beginning, the end, the renewal and the just plain fun and joy of this gift of life. Something that is so sweet and evident when we run off to play in the woods. Something that was so obvious when finishing at the beginning along that lake near Appomattox.
As always a couple of hopefully meaningful quotations to bring closure to rambling.
“Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them.” ---- Ralph Waldo Emerson
"The human soul has need of security and also of risk. . The boredom produced by a complete absence of risk is also a sickness of the soul." - - Simone Weil