The Wild Oak Trail 100 Miler (TWOT) highlights two of the Virginia's greatest trail running assets -- the Wild Oak Trail and Dennis Herr.
The Wild Oak Trail is a beautiful, rugged path with few other users. Billed at 25 miles, (Russ Evans has gotten more than one GPS distance of over 26 miles) a loop of the trail is a big workout no matter how fast you do it. There are three big climbs of about 2,000 feet each. The trail has few if any switchbacks. It has little water. It has gorgeous views.
We all know about the trail because of Dennis Herr. Dennis started the Wild Oak 50 Miler many years ago. That run got tougher and tougher each year and ended up being two of the current loops. The last Wild Oak 50 had a cutoff time of 20 hours and was held in single digit temperatures.
Dennis has done almost everything there is to do in trail running. He has run Old Dominion (the old, old version), Hardrock, Leadville, Wasatch, and many low key, but crazy runs. One year, he did all but a few miles of a "double Wasatch." While not running, Dennis bikes over the same mountains.
Through the Wild Oak 50 and now the TWOT 100, Dennis has given so much to what makes trail running great. He is calm, low key, and caring. But he is also detailed about distances, times, and runners. Dennis makes TWOT the perfect low key event.
When Dennis had the crazy idea of a Wild Oak 100, it followed in the footsteps of the 50 which was always held in the late winter. The run was always cold and had at least some snow on the tops of the mountains. About a year ago, several of us suggested to Dennis that we have some "Hot TWOT" -- do the run when the weather was a bit warmer.
Last year's Hot TWOT was held in late October. It wasn't very hot, and worse, the leaves had fallen off the trees. The footing on leaves was worse than on snow. This second Hot TWOT was earlier. The result was great weather with no leaves on the trail. This was the "good TWOT."
At TWOT, runners appear at the start the way the baseball players came out of the corn field in Field of Dreams. Around 7 AM, there were 20 people who had slipped out of the darkness to run TWOT.
There are three kinds of TWOT runners. First, there are folks who say that they are going to run 100 miles. These people never finish. Second, there are the people who are planning do 100 miles but are smart enough not to say anything about it. They don't finish either. Finally, there is the group of people who have no intention of doing more than one loop. This reporter is a proud member of category three.
This year, there were several people who were in category one or two. As usual, most saw things differently when it was time to head out for a third (or even a second) time on the loop. While you may do a loop either direction, whichever way you choose, you have a long, hard uphill in store for you. While you can drop aid for yourself at two places, there are no aid stations. Each loop is 25 miles and about eight hours of loneliness.
As usual, the one loopers had a good time. They stumbled around on the rocks and then enjoyed the party at the end. (The party is yet another thing that makes going out on a second loop hard.) Three folks this year took the optional 34 mile loop that goes through Ramsey's Draft. They got to the party a bit late. A few one loopers got lost. To them, other than allowing Anstr to beat them, it didn't matter much. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the category one or two folks.
There were at least five people who appeared to want to go four loops. These folks had prepared well and were highly organized. Unfortunately, two of them did not make it. For some reason, several people got bonus miles this year. These two each picked up bonus miles twise. Joyce Fendley and Gary Knipling amassed so many bonus miles that they could not go on. Gary got lost twice. Once he blames on not paying attention since he was listening to the Virginia Tech game. Both of Gary's missteps not only added miles, they added big climbs to get back on the right course.
Joyce Fendley also had two missteps. Her first was not fatal, and she started her second loop in good spirits. But on the second loop, she got turned around in the dark and went back down Big Bald, which she had just climbed. To have gone on, she would have had to do that hill, the hardest on the course, an extra time. She still covered over 50 miles.
Three folks made it to three loops -- Mike Dobies, Russ Evans, and Sue Johnston. Each had a magic feather to get him or her through. Mike's secret is that he did not bring any beer to the run. Usually, Mike brings a bunch of good beer and he and the rest of us enjoy it. Russ's strategy was his famous organizational ability. Russ was totally organized and totally focussed. Finally, Sue used her carefree attitude to laugh her way through 100 tough miles. All three finished the 100 miler.
Last year at the first Hot TWOT, Sue Johnston did two and a third loops for the "TWOT 100km." She did it with Gary Knipling. The two dropped out when they ran out of gas at road 96. This year, Sue went by herself. Would she be able to get past her high point of last year?
Well, this is Sue's year. She had won three tough 100 mile runs -- MMT, setting a new course record and becoming the first woman to go under 24 hours; Hardrock, setting the fastest time on a new course; and Cascade Crest, setting a new course record. Sue is a tough woman who likes to take on a challenge. For example, she bags peaks all over New England and in the United States. (She bagged the highest point in Iowa, 1,670 foot Hawkeye Point, on the way out to Big Horn this year.)
So Sue was not to be denied. She kept a positive attitude and just kept going back out on each loop. On the last loop, she revealed that she had Dennis's splits from his finish. She wanted the course record. She didn't get it. Dennis finished under 34:02 and called it 34:02. Sue did 34:02:57 (and that was giving her some time at the beginning after Dennis said "Go!" and no one went). But she did, of course, the women's course record.
Some of us have done this trail many times. Everyone of this year's participants was just on the trail. But most people only remember the beautiful views and the challenge. They quickly forget the rocks, the air-sucking hills, the cold, heat, and thirst. So people will keep coming back to the TWOT. Hopefully, the TWOT and events like it will prosper. As long as Dennis is around, they will.