A motley bunch of us milled around the stable waiting calmly for directions to go forth into battle. Tall and fit, short and portly, old and the wise, naïve and undertrained, some were dressed in fabrics from 1972 cotton, while others had state-of-the-art 2014 dri-fit. All were up for a two-footed adventure on hallowed ground. Before we knew it, the cracked neon trash cans were positioned in a makeshift starting line and the nuns bestowed the final blessings. No nerves, no last minutes strides, no care in the world of where we were going or how long it would take to get to the end. At that very moment – I knew this day would be something so much more special than a simple race.
This was the Belmead Trailfest, a first year ultra-running festival traversing the rural, historic, and absolutely stunning acreage of the Belmead on the James property in Powhatan County. Maintained by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament when it was operational in the 1800s, the property now contains thousands of acres of singletrack trails, ornate old school buildings, and rolling cornfields. It is also the final resting place of so many who were called to live a religious vocation. The property is not usually open to the public, but today was different.
I chose the 50K race, but there was also a 50-miler. Both races were true no-frills affairs, with all sorts of characters, visual oddities, and comforts of home. This was no Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon. It was like staying in a bed and breakfast in rural Ireland compared to checking in at a Marriott and hitting up IHOP. This race was so personal and inviting and you wanted to stay just a bit longer and fill up on conversation and homemade food.
Each of the ten mile loops was like running through a fairytale. The morning dew never quite burned off, captured in delicate little spider webs on the freshly cut running path. Every now and then, a horse jump would appear, sometimes with bright orange and yellow mums planted inside the posts with care. After the first loop, I still felt the playful urge to self-hurdle over the barriers, but I knew it was not a great idea with the increasing probability of a face plant with each additional mile.
The sun beat down intensely in the middle miles of each loop, but my gaze remained transfixed on the simple little graveyard of white, painted, and unmarked wooden crosses centerpiecing the massive cornfield, as this sight allowed any discomfort, angst, or dread about this long race to melt away. I floated through these middle miles, thinking it would be fine if I moved on to the next life right now and rested under that white cross raised on the grassy knoll. As I ambled around the corners of the field, I snatched bursts of the smoky, spicy smell of charred corn. It was a spiritual sensory overload — a wonderful fusion of all of the life reflection taken from my very best runs, talks with God, and walks in the woods.
The second half of each loop immersed runners in not-too-technical singletrack deep in the woods of the property. Little wooden bridges spanned trickling creeks and hand carved wooden plaques, indicating the crossing of such curious spots as “Sister Foolproof Bridge.”
Oh, the rest stops! Every three miles, a blue pop-up tent was spotted through the clearing. As fatigue and thirst crept into my body, I questioned whether this was a mirage or the read deal. Water? Blue Gatorade? A swig of pickle juice? Friendly, chatty volunteers were ready to cut up a nutella quesadilla, hand you a fig bar, or shove some turkey sandwich squares in your pocket to-go. This was race hospitality at its finest.
As the last left hand turn came into sight, I could hear the small, but mighty band of spectators and volunteers beckon me to the finish chute. I mustered up my finest form to bound through the finish flags with a big smile on my face. I was immediately handed a hand-carved wooden coaster, so I can proudly display proof of my new longest-race-distance on my coffee table for years to come.
I was excited to try out the 50k (31-mile) distance at a low key, trail event at a location close to home, but the entire experience was more rewarding than I ever imagined. I felt like my race entry was helping to fund the outreach and the deteriorating historic buildings on this beautiful property, while simultaneously feeding my soul doing what I love. I am ready to tackle some other races, but I am not sure they will be as special to me as the Belmead 50k.