Read my original nature poems right here!

Read my original nature poems right here!

Bel Monte 50 Mile Race Report

A roadside sunrise at the 2019 Bel Monte 50 mile endurance run. Higher up in the Blue Ridge Mountains there would be plenty of snow that day.

White Knuckles

This Bel monte 50 mile race report first appeared on on March 17, 2019. It’s been combined with another post called White Knuckles, which was inspired by the race, and refreshed and reposted here.

The blue sky turned grey, the concrete turned to ice, and our wandering eyes, exploring the Virginia mountainsides, fixed intently on the road. The snow fell in clumps and the temperature plummeted; the higher our four wheels drove, the whiter my sister’s knuckles became.

We passed the ski resort in Lyndhurst where we’d sleep that night and climbed higher and higher toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, “America’s Favorite Drive,” where packet pickup for the Bel Monte 50 waited in the silent, white trees.

A truck passed us on the two lane, precipitous road. Around a steep bend, we saw hazard lights flashing and vehicles pulled over.

Then our wheels spun, and the car slid backward.

She thought her SUV was AWD.

“It wasn’t even supposed to snow.”

We were sliding, turning, and she was trying to keep it between the deep, snowy shoulder of the mountain and the hundreds-of-feet drop—impressive and wonderful before the snow—to our now right side (we were facing down the mountain, now). She managed to right her car inside the lane and we slid, sometimes stopping, mostly going, always with white knuckles and teeth gritting.

“If you lose it, just steer into the shoulder,” I said. “We don’t want to go that way.” I looked over the edge, an arm’s reach away.

I didn’t think we would make it down that long, steep, mountain road without a ruined trip. The snow was too heavy, the roads a slick slush over ice, and more capable cars kept whirring past us, heading up the reluctant mountain.

A small inn, perched on the edge of the mountain, impossibly convenient in our predicament, saved our trip. We slid down into the parking lot, wondering if we’d be able to make it back up the short incline to the road.

We were less than a mile and two hairpin turns from our lodging (forgetting early packet pickup, by this point). We asked if the inn had a room, and they did. However, the owner told us, “When the plows come by, you should be alright.”

The plows did come, sooner than we expected, and we found our way to the relief of our condo in Wintergreen. I’d pick up my packet on race morning. I slept well that night and hoped the roads would be drivable in the morning.

The Bel Monte 50

The forecast didn’t call for snow, but (just like an ultra marathon) weather in the mountains is fast-changing and can be hard to predict. Luckily, by the early morning of race day, the roads were cleared and passable, though most of the Blue Ridge Parkway remained closed.

Staying at Wintergreen Ski Resort, our trio (and Cowboy, my dog) had a 10 minute drive up the mountain to Royal Oaks Lodge, the race HQ. If you are planning on running Bel Monte and snow is expected, find a place to stay north of Royal Oaks resort (the starting point of the race); this will allow you to avoid the dangerous Blue Ridge Parkway and the snowy climb up the mountain.

However, our lodging at Wintergreen was affordable and super close to the start line (just a 10 minute drive), so I recommend staying there if the weather will be nice.

Bel Monte was my first mountain ultra marathon, and third 50 mile race. I could not have picked a better first mountain 50. It was well-planned and executed, the staff and volunteers were excellent, and the course was awesome–and beautiful!

Bel Monte, this mountain endurance adventure, was a new experience for me in four ways:

  1. first mountain race
  2. first true trail race (the course is less than 5% pavement–and the paved portion is on the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway!)
  3. first race in snow
  4. first race my dog came to the aid stations (probably the most important)

The emotional advantage of having Cowboy 🐶 at the aid stations with my sister and girlfriend (now wife) should have been enough to propel me to my second podium in 2 months, but my road legs were in for some hard learning. I’d trained mostly on flat pavement the last 9 months while prepping for the Light 2 Light 50 in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

The race itself was a challenging, exciting, and rewarding first mountain ultra marathon. The staff and volunteers performed a well-orchestrated dance to change aid station locations (due to the adverse weather) and pull off three race distances over very rugged terrain.

The 50 mile race is actually a double marathon (52.4 miles) with ~8,000 feet of elevation gain and descent.

I was admittedly unprepared for trail running; I’ve done an *estimated* 10 miles worth of trail running in the last two years. Trails in Raleigh are much different, I found. I expected roots and pine needles and instead I got mile-long sections of cumbersome rocks and uneven surfaces. It was a challenging and mentally stimulating first experience.

My biggest takeaways from this 50 mile race were my experiences on the climbs and on the terrain, and the fact that much of the course was runnable.

Climbs at Bel Monte 50 Miler

The course boasts three major climbs you must prepare physically for. The longest is three miles of terrain that isn’t runnable by mid- to back-of-the-pack runners, like me. This climb starts just after the Kennedy Trail aid station at mile 17 and flattens out around mile 20. Afterward, the terrain from miles 20 to 22 is runnable with a few small climbs. The course then becomes quite rocky on the four mile descent to the turnaround at the Stony Run Trail aid station.

The second major climb is back up the four miles you just came down, after the turnaround, from miles 26 to 30. It’s a more gentle sloping and runnable climb than the one from miles 17 to 20, but longer and much rockier. I probably ran 1/3 to 1/2 of this section on legs that still felt pretty good.

The third climb was quite gut-wrenching for me because I forgot how steep it had been when I ran down it. I didn’t remember the steep downhill from miles 7 to 10, and I was certainly was not expecting it to be so hard going back up. This climb from miles 43 to 46 featured lots of 20%+ grade with a few portions climbing over 30%. It consisted of a gradual climb leading up to 1 mile of gnarly switchbacks.

This section of the course torched my now-beat-up legs. I remember a runner with trekking poles zooming past me, igniting a bit of jealousy. When the switchbacks ended, I could taste the finish line, even though it was still six miles away. Mentally, this was the toughest of these three climbs because it was so late in the race and because of how steep it is.

Another climb occupies miles 3.5 to 7, but this was so early in the race that I don’t recall anything particularly difficult about it.

Spend some time wearing a rucksack on a stair climber, doing lunges, or trying these strength workouts to prep for Bel Monte’s climbs.

Terrain at Bel Monte

As I mentioned, the terrain was much rockier than I anticipated. If you’re accustomed to mountain running, this may not surprise you. But if you’re from the lowlands (like me), try to get up to the closest mountains a couple times before race day. Or not…I survived on mostly pavement training.

My Altra Lone Peaks kept me blister free, but the terrain of Bel Monte beat my feet up pretty bad. They were sore after the race. I also learned that rocky, downhill running can be a nightmare for toenails.

Aside from the three climbs mentioned above, I was surprised by how much of this course was flat and runnable, even with all the rocks and ~8,000 feet of elevation gain. Perhaps all that elevation is just packed into the aforementioned steep climbs. If it snows or rains, expect mud on the course, too.

There were two or three stream crossings that did not provide a dry way across. These were each in the first third of the race after coming down the gnarly switchbacks. With my Injini socks and Altra Lone Peaks, however, I stayed in the same socks and shoes for the entire race and came away with no blisters.

Snow and ice can complicate things, especially for ultra runners who are new to the mountains. Prepare accordingly, in gear and mindset.

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The climbs and terrain were my two biggest takeaways as a new-to-mountains runner. I felt very strong throughout the race and made it to the turnaround well before it’s cutoff. I arrived there in five and a half hours and was confident about my return. The second half of the race, especially miles 43 to 46, proved very challenging.

I ended up making the 13 hour cutoff with 8 minutes and 30 seconds to spare, joining a small group of 4 other back-of-the-pack runners in the final stretch. Our little crew ran on the foggy, snow-packed Blue Ridge Parkway at night, one of my favorite racing experiences. It was frigid when the sun went down, and we were eager for the finish line. We tried to cross the finish line at the same moment, to very little fanfare. Most of the camp had gone home, except for a few crew and runners gathered around warm fires.

That’s the magic of ultra running. Each race is so unique and presents challenges that a runner will never have in combination again. I won’t ever have another first mountain ultra marathon, or those same white knuckles, or the same finish line experience.

The Bel Monte Endurance Races was a 10/10 experience. I highly recommend venturing into the cold Virginia mountains to conquer this double marathon, or one of the shorter distances. It’s a great first mountain ultra, but will demand lots of durability, patience, and leg strength. It was a beautiful, well-organized event that challenged me in unexpected ways and tested my mind late in the race, all while providing a pretty runnable course.

You’ll do some power hiking, you’ll stop to take in the views, and you’ll be glad when it’s over. But, just like me, you’ll want to go back.

Rocking my ‘Be Your Own Culture’ trucker hat from Wicked Trail at the Bel Monte 50 mile finish line.

George Callahan is the creator of Pine Tree Poet. He is an author of fantasy stories and an adventure poet. He prefers mountains and pine trees to most other things, and usually takes his dog Cowboy along for the ride.

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