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Holiday Lake 50K tests the endurance of runners

Trail conditions for this year's Holiday Lake 50K included ice, snow and mud, challenging runners to dig deep and push forward
Trail conditions for this year's Holiday Lake 50K included ice, snow and mud, challenging runners to dig deep and push forward
Brian Robinson

The Feb. 15, 2014, running of the Holiday Lake 50K saw 281 finishers, despite the toughest conditions in the 19 runnings of the event, according to Liberty University Professor David Horton, who started the race in 1996.

Leslie McPhatter and Jamie Martin cross the finish line at the Holiday Lake 50K
Brian Robinson

The Holiday Lake 50K is the first race of The Beast Series, which also includes Terrapin Mountain 50K & 1/2 Marathon on March 22, Promise Land 50K on April 26, Grindstone 100 on Oct. 3-5, Mountain Masochist Trail Run on Nov. 1 and Hellgate 100K on Dec. 13.

The Holiday Lake 50K is also the first race of the Lynchburg Ultra Series. You will find results from the Holiday Lake 50K at The finishing times for the event don't really do justice to the race or the endurance of the runners.

Brian Robinson and other runners shared photos from Holiday Lake for this article. We spoke with seven of the finishers of this year's Holiday Lake 50K to learn how they stayed motivated under difficult conditions which included cold, ice, snow and mud.

Here's what Jamie Swyers, Grattan Garbee, Mike Mitchell, Andrew Charron, Lesley McPhatter, Jordan Miller and Melissa Caruso-Early shared with us about trail running, motivation and advice for new runners.

Jamie Swyers started running in fall 2009 during Dr. Horton's Advanced Running class. Swyers met her future husband in that class, who proposed to her at the Promise Land 50K in 2011.

This year was Jamie Swyers' third Holiday Lake 50K. Swyers told us, "Usually Holiday Lake is an awesome first ultra but this year it was brutal and took a lot of inner toughness. Everyone who finished fought through some intensely difficult conditions and showed some real perseverance!"

Swyers' biggest challenge during this year's event was the condition of the course. Snow, ice and mud made it a struggle to stay upright and keep her feet under her.

Despite the challenge, Swyers said, "I knew I had to finish this event. Dropping out meant waiting at an aid station for possibly hours in your soaking wet clothes and shoes until someone could drive you back to the start. I kept reminding myself that everyone else is feeling the same way and hurting just as bad as I was. The final aid station I was suffering badly and a member of the crew told me I couldn’t stop and yelled at me to 'get out of here!' It was the final push I needed and I put my head down to grind out the last four miles."

Swyers offers this advice to new runners, "Find friends to train with and run in beautiful places. Listen to your body and pay attention to pain. Figure out what’s normal training aches and what’s early signs of injures. When in doubt, play it smart. Set goals but have fun with your running and don’t take it too seriously. You’ll have great days and tough days and they both make you better. Always remember, this is a hobby, if it’s not fun… what’s the point?"

Grattan Garbee, vice-president of the Lynchburg Road Runners Club, began running at Brookville High School, continued at Lynchburg College, then took a break of about 10 years before starting back about 15 years ago.

In addition to running trail runs up to 100K, Garbee runs road races. This was Garbee's ninth finish of the Holiday Lake 50K.

Garbee said, "The first step is always the hardest, especially when you know it's going to be cold and nasty." Garbee said this year's event added additional challenges and coined the term 'slogging' to describe how participants powered through the cold, icy, muddy slush.

Garbee, along with fellow runners Dr. Mike Dunlop, Mike Mitchell, David Snipes, Sam Price, John Cooper, Dr. Kelly Golden and others stopped to assist runner Amy Albu, who slipped on an icy patch about seven miles into the race, breaking her leg.

After emergency splinting of her leg on the trail by Dunlop, about a dozen runners took turns carrying Albu, a trauma nurse at UVA Medical Center, to the nearest aid station more than a mile away.

Amy Albu was transported to UVA for treatment, which included surgery the next day to insert plates to her tibia and fibula. Amy's fall motivated many runners, including Garbee, to finish the race, no matter how painful and difficult it got.

Garbee's advice for new runners is, "Set a goal (like a specific race), but even more important have a training plan - the daily steps needed to achieve the long term goal - find running partners to help make you accountable and also know that running can be as much social as physical."

Mike Mitchell started distance running as a 7th grader, running cross country and track through high school, took a break from running while raising a family, then returned to running about 10 years ago.

Mitchell also runs road races, often pushing son Aaron in a wheelchair. Aaron is one of many assisted athletes who enjoy the thrill of running while being powered by local athletes.

Although he enjoys all kinds of races, trail runs are Mitchell's favorite. Mitchell said, "The folks are more laid back and it seems to be more of an adventure and an experience of enduring and overcoming the trail and the conditions, whatever the weather brings, than just a 5k in town."

Mitchell's first ultramarathon trail race was the Holiday Lake 50K in 2007, but he's also run the Mountain Masochist, which is advertised as a 50-mile race but is actually about 52 miles long.

Like many of the runners we spoke with, Mitchell said the second half of this year's Holiday Lake 50K was the most challenging. Mitchell said, "It was like running in an ice cold muddy creek the whole second 16 miles."

When Mitchell saw Amy Albu on the ground, he thought she had tripped and fallen. When he noticed Dr. Dunlop checking her leg, Mitchell used his Boy Scout training to find sturdy sticks in the woods for making a wilderness splint.

Mitchell helped form a 'human litter' to carry Amy to the aid station. Mitchell said," It wasn't a good experience for Amy but it was good to see many people putting their own race plans on hold for 30 or 40 minutes while tending to a greater need of a fellow runner who was injured and in need of evacuation and medical attention."

Mitchell said, "My motivation to continue and finish in the conditions comes from a deep place. I'm not sure how to communicate this adequately but I have strong adverse feelings when it comes to those three letters 'DNF' (Did Not Finish). Once I commit to a race I have always, with one exception out of hundreds, finished it. No matter if I was injured, ill, or under-trained, or adverse course conditions, I am pretty determined to finish."

Mitchell's advice to beginners is, "Start slow and easy and make it fun. Don't try to do too much at once. Be patient, be consistent and over time your body can accomplish amazing things. Get out and jog a few yards then walk a few yards, 30 to 40 minutes 3 to 4 times a week. In two months you will be able to run the whole 30 minutes. Then find a 5k (that is 3.1 miles) race to enter and go have fun with a bunch of other people who have or are doing the same thing. You will meet new friends and open a whole different horizon in your life! You don't have to be fast...just have fun!"

Andrew Charron, known to Dr. Horton as "Best Blood", was challenged by his friend, Todd Foster, to run 10 miles in November 2011. Foster told Charron, "Distance running doesn't make sense to you because you think you can't do it." Charron ran 10 miles that night and has been hooked on distance running ever since.

This is Charron's third time running Holiday Lake. The biggest challenge this year was the snow, which Charron said "felt like trying to run on a floor covered in marbles."

Charron's fiancée, Kati, was his motivation for finishing. Kati woke up early to be at the race's start and was waiting at the finish line with a hug and kiss.

Charron told us, "I grew up hiking and outside all the time outside Worcester, MA, also known as 'City of Seven Hills', as Lynchburg is, so I love being out in nature and enjoying what God has created. Nature is expansive and unique, which is the real reason that I love trails more than roads."

Charron's advice to new runners is, "Do however much you can, but start somewhere! The running community is incredibly encouraging. This year around 10 people helped carry a woman who broke her leg during the race to safety. Runners want to help and encourage. They will be proud if you start at 2 miles and that's all you can do. Don't be ashamed if you're not fast or if you can't do it. Try, try, try, try, try again. When you get sick of trying, try some more! My first ultra was HL50k 2011. I lacerated my shin at mile 15 and was forced to drop out, go to the hospital and get stitches. Two years later you can still see the scar. Life will throw challenges at you. Life will knock you down and your determination to get back up and face your monsters is an irreplaceable quality. Sometimes we have to get beat up for God to show us we CAN do something."

Lesley McPhatter is the oldest of four children in a running family. Her dad, Frank McPhatter, ran the first 30 Virginia 10 Milers before his death in May 2013. Lesley ran her first 10 Miler in 1992 after breaking her foot training the previous year.

Lesley ran her first marathon in 1996 and her first ultra, Holiday Lake, in 1999. Lesley shared, "My goal was to run a marathon within one year of the birth of my first child - there wasn't one close by, so 50K sounded good. She was 10 months old. I loved it and ran the next three - all within one minute of each other - 5:56, 5:55, 5:57. I have run 6 more and never touched under 6 hours since!"

Although Lesley always runs the Virginia 10 Miler, she also loves the camaraderie on trail runs. Just as she first ran the 10 Miler because of her dad's influence, Lesley began marathon running with her dad running with her, mentoring and encouraging her along the way.

"I have so many good memories for those times with him that I never would have had if I hadn't picked up running," Lesley shared. At this year's Virginia 10 Miler, the entire McPhatter family ran in Frank's memory.

Lesley said, "I did not become a 'real' trail runner till 2008. I trained on the Promise Land course with friends and thought they were all crazy. Holiday Lake is a runner's trail run - you can run the whole thing, no mountains to climb, no technical trail to maneveur. That year, I decided to the Lynchburg Ultra Series and to prepare for Promise Land, I did the Terrapin 1/2 marathon. It was the first year for that race and it wasn't part of the LUS. I will never forget people FLYING down the backside of that mountain as I tiptoed....It was amazing. And I was hooked."

About this year's Holiday Lake 50K, Lesley told us, "The first lap, I was doubting my ability to stay out there and do it. Then I came upon the guys carrying Amy Albu from the creek almost to the next aide station. I stayed with them for a while and I can't tell you the impact she had on all of us - she was so brave and I am sure in such pain. But she never complained and was so appreciative - I mean there are 10 guys, spelling each other, carrying a girl in a foot of snow, always with one guy walking backwards to hold her splinted leg just so. Everyone who ran by offered a jacket or pain meds or anything they had. After that, I knew I would finish this race in the time limit. And I enjoyed it. It's a privilege to be able to do these things and I like to focus on how blessed I am to do this, especially during the rough spots. It took two hours longer than usual, my feet were wet and frozen most of the time, I was hungry and covered in mud I couldn't escape. But I felt good. And my dear friend Jamie Martin caught me with about 3 miles to go and we did the last stretch together - always easier with someone to talk to."

Lesley's advice to new runners is, "Find a friend or three and go have fun. With social media, there is always a run, or someone looking to run. Pick a reasonable goal, start slow, get fitted for the right shoe for you and go running. And enjoy it. A endocrinologist I worked with years ago once said 'Exercise is not a luxury. It's part of the prescription for a healthy, full life.' Don't find excuses (not enough time) to miss exercise. Maybe running is the most selfish thing you do, but do it. You benefit, your kids and/or significant other benefit because you are happier and you have something that is all yours."

Trail running is easier on the body, more relaxing and more enjoyable to Lesley than road running. When her kids were younger, Lesley says that running ultras was cheaper than shopping and the only way to get eight hours alone with no one yelling "MOM!"

Lesley loves running and says she can talk about running for days. "It's my sanity and part of who I am. All three of my girls run and love it. I started coaching Girls on the Run when my 10th grader was in the 4th grade. My youngest is now doing GOTR as a 4th grader. Teach your kids to love exercise and they will. And teaching by example is always best."

Jordan Miller's dad was a marathoner before he was born. Miller's first race was a kids' mile fun run as a 6-year-old in 1993. Although he struggled with the mile run, his dad helped and encouraged him, and Miller's been a runner ever since.

Miller runs both road and trail races, but does most of his training runs on the trails with Pearl, his 2-year-old lab/collie mix, who knows her way around Candler's Mountain.

Miller ran the Holiday Lake 50K the first time in 2011, finishing in 11th place. In 2012, Miller had to pull out of the race at the 26-mile mark due to nutritional issues. Miller looks forward to running the Mountain Masochist Trail Run-50 Miler in November.

"The biggest challenge this year was not letting my head get to me, which it inevitably did anyways and there are places I remember asking myself why I do this to myself," Miller told us. "No one makes another individual run an ultra, they choose it for themselves based on their own personal goals and the other obvious one this year were the conditions which were atrocious to say the least. Also making sure I stayed on top of my hydration and nutrition was going to be a battle because I do not usually use too much in training."

Miller told us that finishing wasn't his only motivation. "Redeeming myself from a terrible experience in 2012 was my main motivational factor. The fact that the conditions were beyond awful was another obstacle to be tackled, and it was a burden, and I couldn’t wait to get to the halfway point to change my shoes and socks, which I believe helped because I finished blister free and much less soreness than expected. But that obstacle was lower on the priority list then redemption from a personal bad experience two years prior."

Miller's advice to new runners is, "Start slow, build gradually, and don’t be afraid of a little pain and heartache along the way. With distance running, so many factors come into play and we start analyzing those factors and lose sense of why we run to begin with. Some may start to lose weight, or get in shape for another sport, but running at it's core is fun, whether it’s to the other base, or not getting caught in hide and seek, it’s hard to not see the joy in running no matter what the distance is."

Miller adds, "Humans have this need and desire to accomplish things we think we cannot. Exploring the stars comes to mind for our current generation. It is this evolutionary instinct that I beckon on when running. I want what I know I cannot have, but yet continue to drive forward to something that may or may not happen. It is irrational to believe that we can always get what we want, but when we push ourselves to our limits, we may find that what we want is not what we need."

Melissa Caruso-Early is a newcomer to running. Melissa began running as part of a fitness ministry at Blue Ridge Community Church about two years ago. This year's Holiday Lake 50K was Melissa's inaugural distance run.

Like many trail runners, Melissa enjoys the hiking, running, climbing aspects of trail running. Melissa said her biggest challenge at the Holiday Lake 50K was, "The single track snud trail. Since the course was covered in snow I guess runners just stayed behind one another so the wide trail sections were still single track unless you wanted to create your own. Which for the second half my pacer did because it was actually easier to run there than through the mud."

Melissa found her motivation in family and friends waiting for her. "I just kept thinking 'keep moving, don't stop,' and then I thought of my husband, children, and friends waiting for me at the finish. At one point in the second loop, I actually felt bad because I knew they all would finish an hour or more ahead of me. The course was more difficult after the sun came out and temperatures warmed the snow turned to mud. My friend Kat ran with me and would NOT let me stop. She ran ahead and grabbed what I needed from aid stations so that I would not have to stop.I hurt my knee about a month ago in the down pour training run which caused my hip flexor to work overtime and that was my fear for this race. I thought I was prepared with anti-inflammatory cream and Aleve, but that did not prevent it from hurting from mile 12 on. Needless to say I had many thoughts going through my head especially Dr. Horton's words to not be in the 10 percent that don't finish and that pain is temporary."

Melissa's advice to other new runners is, "Get with a group of people that LOVE to run and will hold you accountable, but NOT PRESSURE you. I run with two amazing groups: Blue Ridge Trail Runners and The No Pressure Running Club."

Melissa added, "This definitely was not the ideal first ultra like Dr. Horton advertises due to the trail conditions. The weather did not bother me, but the conditions were unbelievable. After finishing with only five minutes left to learn the front runners were an hour to an hour and a half behind their normal times was comforting. However, my goal was to not race the clock and that is exactly what I did. Oh and the two watches that we brought for the race did not work so I had no concept of time except when coming into aid stations. I was on God's time out there for sure."

In the week since the Holiday Lake 50K, these runners have kept busy with training runs for upcoming events, including the Terrapin Mountain 50K and the Promise Land 50K. For most trail runners, nothing can beat a day on the trails.

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