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The Snowy Holiday Lake Ultramarathon

Runners stayed single file except to pass, to avoid stepping in the snow, which was 6-8 inches deep.
Runners stayed single file except to pass, to avoid stepping in the snow, which was 6-8 inches deep.
Gary Heiser

This year’s Holiday Lake 50k++ trail run fell on the Saturday after Central Virginia’s February snowstorm.

The event is the first race in the Lynchburg Ultra Series and the Beast Series (, and is recommended as a first ultra. An ultramarathon is anything above the 26.2-mile marathon distances — the “++” in this event denotes the mileage above the official 50k/31-mile distance. Elevation change and technicality are minimal along the Holiday Lake State Park trails in Appomattox County, Virginia, with parts of the run along forest roads. The time limit is eight hours for the 33.26 miles.

The Wednesday before the race, a major winter storm rolled through Virginia, with 10 inches hitting Holiday Lake. Like most races—especially ultras—the race would go on. However, due to the conditions, the race director extended the time limit to nine hours.

Friday before race day brought some sunshine and melting, bringing the base down to perhaps 6-8 inches. But melting isn’t all good.

On Saturday, February 15, at 6:30 in the morning, 314 runners lined up at the starting line, the committed and craziest among the 400 who had signed up. The temperature hovered just above freezing and a light rain was coming down.

The Holiday Lake course is an out-and-back loop, starting and turning around at the 4-H Center. It’s mostly single-track through the woods with some fire road and a stretch of open trail on utility easement.

The first memorable leg of the trail was of lightly packed snow, often slushy and slippery, trampled by all of the pairs of feet that came before. Much of the trail became narrow single-track, as runners stepped into the path made by previous runners. Passing meant stepping into unbroken snow. The two sections that closely bordered the lake were especially tricky, bordering small drop-offs that ended in the cold water.

The trail also passed through Holliday Creek—some runners chose to cross the creek over a fallen tree, but others forged more quickly through the thigh-high water.

A runner was injured on that section of the trail, falling and breaking both bones in her lower leg. In a tribute to the quality of the running community, a dozen runners took turns carrying her to the next aid station. One of those runners was an emergency room physician and used branches for natural splinting materials.

That first lap itself was difficult, with frequent slips challenging knees and ankles, calling upon muscles that hadn’t been trained for such conditions. Unfortunately, conditions got harder. After the turnaround, each part of the trail had been trampled even more, since many runners had begun their trek back on the out-and-back course. Temperatures in the low 30s continued to soften the surface. What had been like running in sand became more like running in quicksand, with slush and mud sucking at the feet, invariably finding their way inside the shoes.

On the return lap, some sections of the trail had become small streams, with muddy waters forming narrow, 6-8 inch wide gullies flowing towards the low parts, which became large, slushy puddles that were usually impossible to skirt. Some surfaces were so slushy and slippery that running seemed an exercise in futility, and walking became the norm.

The race featured aid station stops at seven spots along the way, with helpful volunteers and an assortment of junk food.

Of the only 314 starters, only 89% finished. In comparing times of runners who had competed both in 2013 and 2014, the typical runner added at least 1:15 to his or her finishing time.

The slushy, snowy trails at the 2014 Holiday Lake 50k++ were manageable, and conquering them was even more thrilling than if conditions had been easy.

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