The Eastern Divide Ultra is a 50K race that runs point to point, from the Cascade Falls to Mountain Lake in Pembroke, Virginia. The last time I ran this race was in 2016. This year’s course was different and included two overlooks and a new finish venue. My race experience was so different from 2016, and the new course was only a small piece of that.
Since the race is point to point, runners have the option of parking at the finish and catching a shuttle to the start or getting dropped off at the start. Barry gave me a ride to the start, and we made the short 45 minute drive over to the Cascades at 6 AM for the 7:30 AM start. I dropped off my drop bag, hit the restroom, and then waited for go time.
I was feeling pretty nervous at the start. My resting heart rate was a little high and I felt a bit light-headed. I knew this would be a challenging day for me, and I was worried about making the 6 hour cutoff at aid station 5. As I mingled with the other runners in the starting area, I talked to my friends Carla and Michael. I really appreciated their calming presence. Despite my nerves, I was still really excited for the day. Just after 7:30, we were off and running!
Start to AS 1 (Miles 0 to 4.5)
The race starts with a 5 mile, 2,000 foot climb to the top of Butt Mountain. I know this section of trail well, and I quietly settled into a steady hike with some running thrown in. Around mile 2, we dropped down for a view of the 77 foot Cascade waterfall before continuing our climb. No time for a swim that morning, though.
From the Cascades, we hit the steeper part of the trail which is also pretty rocky. I chatted some with the runners around me and tried to hike with a purpose and just stay relaxed. Around mile 3, we got to the intersection for the out and back section to Barney’s Wall. It was runnable down to the wall, and I briefly took in the view down here before punching my bib with the orienteering punch and climbing back up to the main trail.
I came off of the single track and onto the fire road at aid station 1 and was greeted by my friend Matt and another volunteer. Matt would be sweeping the course from AS 1 to AS 5 and I asked him not to sweep me. He assured me he wouldn’t and I’d be fine! I put some water in one of my flasks and enjoyed some bacon. They also had bourbon, but I felt like it was a bit too early for that.
AS 1 to AS 2 (Miles 4.5 to 10)
From aid station 1, we still had a bit more climbing to do to get to the top of Butt Mountain. Finally, the fire road leveled out and I could see the gate marking the out and back to the Butt Mountain overlook. We were supposed to punch our bibs again here, but instead there was a volunteer writing down our bib numbers.
From here, I headed back out onto the fire road. It’s rolling through this section with lots of huge puddles to cross. It’s almost impossible not to get wet and muddy through here, but I still go around the edge of these giant puddles because I have no clue how deep they are in the middle. The road itself is also pretty rough through here.
Although this section is rolling with a fair amount of downhill, there’s always a bit more uphill than I anticipate before making it to aid station 2. It also took longer to get there than I expected, since we had the two extra out and backs (which added about 1.3 miles), and I actually ran out of water. It wasn’t hot, yet, but it was very humid and I was drinking a lot.
I leap frogged with five other runners and had snippets of conversation with them. I also ran into a girl who I had volunteered with in the past, which was cool. Finally, we hit aid station 2. I refilled Tailwind and water and also had a cup of Coke. I headed out of the aid station with two other runners.
AS 2 to AS 3 (Miles 10-16)
The road transitions from dirt to gravel at this point and there’s no more big puddles to navigate, so I was able to get moving better through here. We had a ton of downhill immediately after the aid station and I was ready to take advantage of it.
I was still leap frogging with the two runners I had left aid station 2 with – Ken, I think, and Lesa. We encountered two dogs laying in brush along the side of the road watching runners go by. They were totally chill, which was good, but I was so thankful I happened to be in a group of 3 when we encountered them, just in case. Soon after that, the three of us spread out and I ran on my own for a bit.
We hit the next uphill section and I transitioned to a hike. My legs were feeling tired and my hips were starting to hurt. Lesa caught up to me during this section and her company helped pass the time during this stretch. Unlike aid station 2, I always hit aid station 3 sooner than I expect.
Lesa and I came into AS 3 together and I refilled my water and had another cup of Coke. They told us 5K to the next aid station at Wind Rock, which I knew meant 1 mile of downhill followed by a 2 mile, 800 foot climb.
AS 3 to AS 4 (Miles 16 to 19.1)
The road was all gravel at this point and that helped us move better. Lesa and I were both worried about making the cutoff at AS 5. It was advertised as being at mile 22, but I knew since we were already at mile 16 it was going to be somewhere past mile 23. Nothing we could do about it but keep moving forward.
We ran through the little hunting cabin community and then got to the intersection and made a right turn, and it was time to climb to Wind Rock. It’s a tough climb on tired legs, and the road curves which can make it feel endless. I switched my watch over to the lap display so I could just focus on the mile I was in. I hiked the first mile of the climb. For the second mile, I alternated 20 steps of running and 40 steps of walking to help me move better. Lesa was a strong climber, so she was up ahead and I focused on keeping her in my sight.
Finally, we made it to aid station 4 at Wind Rock! This is where our drop bags were and I tried to get through this aid station quickly. I grabbed my fuel for the final miles of the race and two packets of Liquid IV. I poured one packet into one of my flasks and filled it with water.
I was already 5 hours and 20 minutes into the race and I knew it was 4 miles to the next aid station and the 6 hour cutoff. I’m not running 4 miles in 40 minutes in the middle of an ultra, especially when those miles have a fair amount of uphill. But that didn’t deter me from giving a strong effort into Mountain Lake.
AS 4 to AS 5 (Miles 19.1 to 23.3)
The first mile from Wind Rock is all downhill on a gravel road. I knew I could hammer this, and that’s what I did, running it in 10:12. After that first downhill, you hit a fair amount of rolling gravel road and uphill. I alternated running and hiking and worked hard. I knew I was going to miss the cutoff, but I didn’t get down on myself. My mindset was so different from when I ran this race in 2016, and I think I’ve come a long way in the past 5 years. I never wanted to give up this time, and I ran as hard as if I was going to make the cutoff and just hoped they would let me continue.
Aid station 5 used to be at mile 22, before they added the extra mileage for Barney’s Wall and the Butt Mountain overlook, and I hit mile 22 at 5 hours, 58 minutes. I almost took a picture of my watch as proof I had hit 22 miles in under 6 hours so that I could plead my case, even though it didn’t count.
About 3/4th of a mile out, Barry was waiting for me along the road. He came out to Mountain Lake to crew me and see me finish the race. He ran and hiked with me into the aid station and told me he thought they’d let me continue. Apparently they were being lenient since it was an extra 1.3 miles to the cutoff aid station this year.
I arrived at AS 5 at 6 hours, 18 minutes, which means I made it 4.2 miles in 58 minutes and I’m pretty proud of that. I was so focused on getting there and getting a popsicle that I actually ran past the turn onto the trails where the aid station was, even though there was a guy in a chair telling me to turn.
My friends Cathy and Jason were at this aid station, along with another volunteer, and they assured me I could continue. I felt so relieved! Jason hooked me up with a delicious, refreshing blue ice pop and Barry got my flasks refilled for me. Most of the aid stations had ice cold water, which is such a luxury and much appreciated on a hot day.
I wasn’t really interested in any of the aid station food, but I ate an orange slice while I was there. In general, I did a pretty good job eating my own fuel (huma gels, honey stinger chews, and Tailwind) throughout the race.
After 19 miles of fire road and gravel road, it was time to get back on some trails!
AS 5 to AS 6 (Miles 23.3 to 27.6)
The trails at Mountain Lake are very rocky and rugged and challenging. They’re narrow and often lined with tall ferns and grass that make me itchy. But I really love running on them. They’re just so pretty and peaceful.
I did plenty of tripping through here, per usual. But I did manage to stay on my feet. My calves and the front of my left shin kept trying to cramp on me. Overall, we had really great weather for a mid-June race. But by this point, it was fairly sunny and getting into the upper 80’s.
I went up a few steep climbs and then passed by Graham’s memorial. I paused here, briefly, and said a little prayer for him before continuing on.
This trail section took me a little while and I rolled into aid station 6 around 7 hours 40 minutes. Barry was there again to see me one more time before the finish. I refilled just one flask, knowing I didn’t have much race left and wouldn’t drink much on the downhill. The volunteers told me it was probably about 4 miles to the finish. “Probably” and “about” are as exact as it gets at a trail race, haha. After having another popsicle and a cup of Coke, it was time to go finish this thing!
AS 6 to Finish (Miles 27.6 to 31.6)
We left the trails and turned right onto the paved road at Mountain Lake. I thought we would be doing all downhill to the finish, but of course we had to go up another hill first. I hiked up it and then ran by the cabins and pool at Mountain Lake with a view of the hotel – where they filmed Dirty Dancing!
Some folks cheered me on through here, as we climbed ONE more hill and then started the downhill towards the finish.
The paved road was a steep downhill, and it was banked at times and did not feel good to run on! My quadriceps kept trying to cramp, but I pushed the pain to the back of my mind and tried to capitalize on gravity. I did mange to clock two more miles under 11 minute pace 🙂
I knew we would turn right at some point and I kept worrying if I had missed the turn. All of this was new territory since the race finished in a different spot this year. But then I’d see another pink ribbon up ahead and knew I was still on course on the road. After about 2 miles, I made it to the observation deck where we turned right onto the trail to take us down to the finish at Doe Creek Farm. The turn was heavily marked and I definitely would not have missed it.
I had heard the last 1.5 miles of trail was all downhill and I thought I would totally bomb down it to the finish. And it was downhill except for two tiny hills, but you could not bomb down it. Or I could not, at least. The trail was freshly cut to give us a route from the road to the finish line, and I know that took so much work on the race director’s part. But that dang trail was so lumpy and rocky! My ankles were not having it. It was only 1.5 miles but it seemed to go on for a long time. Finally, the trail dumped me onto a gravel road. I made a right turn and then a left turn and headed straight for the finish arch!
I finished my race in 8:36:59, high-fived Steve, the race director, and received a finisher’s cup. I grabbed a cold seltzer water and took a seat with Barry at a picnic table. Per usual, all I wanted to do was take off my shoes! Once that was accomplished, I grabbed a box lunch that had two pulled pork sliders, pasta salad, slaw, and chips. Eventually, I also got myself a delicious, ice cold pilsner to put in my finisher’s cup as well.
We hung out with old friends and new ones, all sharing our experiences from the day and catching up. It’s always awesome getting to catch up with friends I haven’t seen for awhile. Especially at a local race.
Overall, I think I had a really solid race day. I finished a bit slower than I expected, and my time was about 20 minutes slower than when I ran the race in 2016. But the new course was 2.5 miles longer and I think it was tougher than the old course. So I think 20 minutes slower than my old time is pretty good.
I don’t know what it is about this race, exactly, but I really love it. The organizers put on a fantastic event, the volunteers are so friendly and top notch, and I love the variety in the course itself. I’m so lucky to have this race in my back yard. I believe I’m already in for next year, as I have a certain friend who is ready to tackle her first ultra. So I’ll see you in 2022, EDU!