A Day on the Iron Mountain Trail


Gary Griffin


Running, it has been said, is like putting money in the bank. If you don’t put in the training miles, there’s not going to be anything to withdraw on race day. I banked a lot of miles this summer – perhaps too many, I was thinking, but I also felt that those deposits into the running bank would pay off if I could endure the most challenging aspect of running: the dreaded pre-race taper. That process was made a bit more tolerable by a brief case of the flu and when I went to the starting line at the inaugural edition of the 50 Mile Mountain Trail Run last Saturday, I was as ready as I was ever going to be. In retrospect, that was a good thing.

The IMTR 50 Miler is actually 51 miles and I turned it into about a 55 miler when I twice missed course markings and lost my way on the course. The race is set in the little town of Damascus, VA (pop. 700) near Mt Rogers, the highest point in the state. Damascus is bisected by the Appalachian Trail and has been called “the friendliest town on the A.T.” by some. I can see why they would say so. There’s no one for the locals to talk with there except for through-hikers, so when those two parties – the locals and the hikers – get together they’re so starved for conversation that they become best friends in a matter of minutes.

The run began at 7 a.m. and since it was still fairly dark, we ran the first 5 miles on the crushed-gravel surface of the Virginia Creeper Trail, a converted rail-to-trail. After that we began the mile long climb up to the Iron Mountain ridge line, where we stayed for the next 10 miles or so, before venturing in to the higher Mt Rogers area. The course was 75% rocky single track and 20% gravel forest road. Because it had been overcast with some light rain for several days, the trail was fairly soggy. Nonetheless, the cool temps (40s) and overcast made it ideal for racing after a hot Tallahassee summer.

Jeff Bryan and I ran together for the first 20 miles or so before I went on. We had talked about running it together the whole way, but in reality, you put too much prep time into these things to go out there and give it less than your best effort. So, at his urging and my desiring to do so, I went on. I thrive on technical downhills and this course had a lot to give if one could run those with any gusto.

My goal going in was to break 10 hours because, (a) they were giving special awards to sub-10 hr finishers and (b) that would give me another year of Western States qualification if I didn’t run Tallahassee in December. I had told Jeff early that I thought we should strive to be at the 29-mile aid station in 5 hours and then just cruise on in to a sub-10. I arrived at that point in 5:10 and was feeling good and very confident, and actually thinking “this course is not that hard …” That attitude changed in a hurry as the next 3miles coming out of that aid station were uphill, muddy un-runnable single track that took me an hour to complete. After that the trail became a broad gravel forest road that continued up for another mile before finally leveling off and beginning a descent. After 4 miles of going up I wasn’t feeling as confident as I had and felt I needed to make up for lost time, so to speak. I pushed the pace and got to feeling very well and it was shortly thereafter that I missed a turn off the forest road back onto the single track. It was marked well, but in my focus to run hard and make up that “lost time”, I just simply missed it. After nearly 2 miles of seeing no course markings and not getting any help from 3 good ‘ol boys in a pick-up, I knew I had messed up badly. A bit later a fellow that I had seen at the prior aid station happened to drive by and I asked, “Am I on the course?” His response: “I hate to tell you this but you’re not.” Well, I hate to tell ya’ll this, but I cussed. And, I cussed pretty badly. Frustrated, I turned around and retraced my steps until I located the trail. It turned out to be a delightful downhill but technical single track, and within minutes my confidence returned. I was running hard again and back on a sub-10 pace. I arrived at the mile 37 aid station right at 7 hours and the fact that I had given them an extra 3+ miles and had cost myself 30 minutes or more wasn’t a concern. I felt good and unless the wheels came completely off, I was going to finish sub-10. I pulled into the last aid station at mile 43 at 8:15 (there was some nasty climbing between 37 and 43!) but knew the course profile showed lots of downhill back to the finish in Damascus. What I hadn’t planned on was getting lost again. This time though, I had company.

Right after leaving that last aid station I came to a 3-way fork in the trail and encountered 3 other runners that I not seen since the start. One was a young lady that had been battling for the lead in the women’s race for part of the day before falling victim to stomach problems and another was a young man that I had met at the start who I thought might win the thing. The downhills had eaten him up and he was struggling. We did not see a course mark at all but knew we were to come back on the Iron Mountain Trail. There was a small wooden sign pointing to the right for the IMT, so off we went – all 4 of us. We ran for several miles knowing that we hadn’t seen a course marker and knowing in our hearts that we had messed up badly. Yet, there were yellow blazes on the trees and one of our group thought that those meant we were on the IMT. After 30 minutes of running we came across a mountain biker and asked him, “Is this the IMT?” He said that it was not, and that to get back to Damascus, we needed to continue on another few miles and then hit some forest road which in another 3 miles would take us to town. For all we knew, it would’ve been dark by then, but at this point we just were more interested in our survival than actually crossing a finish line. (I failed to mention that a bear had been seen on the course that day and that abundance of what I thought was horse manure was actually not that at all, which fully answers that age-old question about “bears shitting in the woods ….”) But, shortly after encountering the none-too-helpful cyclist, our luck turned. Someone spotted a small sign that read “Iron Mtn Trail 1 Mile” with an arrow up the hill. Up we went and before long we saw the orange streamers that marked the course and were pretty sure we weren’t going to die out there. We were back on the IMT but had no idea where we were on the IMT! We didn’t know if we were 7 miles out or 400 yards out. The 10 hour mark had not passed and I had worked too hard all day to just give in, so I ran on ahead with the young lady that I mentioned earlier. After what seemed like 15 minutes or so we came upon an unmanned aid station that she thought was 4 miles from the finish. With only 30 minutes or so before the 10-hour mark, it wasn’t looking good. As luck would have it, we soon saw a sign that read, “Damascus 2 miles”. I knew that once we came off the trail that we had a mile of pavement to the finish in the town park. In other words, I had 3 miles to go. My watch read 9:30, and I just knew I could handle that. Still, I didn’t want to take any chances. A wooden sign in the woods reading “2 miles” could really mean 2.3 miles, inasmuch as Bill McGuire had probably not been out there with his wheel. At this point the trail got very steep and rocky and crossed a small stream several times on the way down the mountain. I had tried all day to keep my feet relatively dry but at this point, that was no longer a concern. I ran as hard as I could down the mountain, dreading each foot plant. My knees, which never give me any trouble, had taken a pounding all day and they weren’t too happy with what I was putting them through at that stage of the game. I’m not a big fan of pavement but I was sure glad to see it after those last 2 miles of trail on Saturday. I crossed the line at 9:51 and was greeted by the race director’s comment, “I heard you tried to turn this into a 100K”. I made it plain that it wasn’t his fault that I was wandering all over the woods and told him that I just wanted to get my money’s worth. I felt as if I had.

The race is a tough one and it sure beat me up. There was not much on me that hasn’t hurt this week, and now – 6 days later – am I able to see my ankles for the first time. Nonetheless, it was worth every single step. I am satisfied that in spite of running probably an extra 4 miles out there that I still managed to finish 12th overall. I was beaten by a minute by two guys that I had run with a good bit during the day, but who I also had managed to run away from before getting lost both times. I give them credit for being far more attentive to course markings than I was.

As for Jeff, he hung in there very well, finished looking great and ran a strong 10:27. He was pleased with his effort, (as anyone should be at the end of this affair) and said that he thought it was harder than Mountain Masochist, another Virginia 50-miler that he’s run twice. This race – the IMT 50 – should catch on and become a big event. The RD is Eric Grossman, the course record holder at the Great Eastern Endurance Run at both 50K and 100K. Eric and his wife Robin worked hard and produced a quality race. Should I have the good fortune to wind up there next year, you can bet I’m going to pay far more attention to course markings!