Sunday, December 16, 2012

This isn't your daddy's trail: XTERRA Richmond run

I was spoiled when I was in Connecticut.  I had easy access to great trails for cyclocross, mountain biking, and especially running, all within a few miles of school.  If I was willing to drive 15 minutes, my options increased exponentially.  I don't have that luxury in Virginia Beach.  I've heard there's a small-ish network of trails about 20 minutes away, but it caters more to the BMX crowd.  There's also one very flat set of trails, most of which can only be run on, in First Landing State Park.  However, Richmond is in a world of its own despite being two hours away, as I have pointed out previously.  I was up in Richmond this weekend for my final cyclocross race of the season, so I decided to bring along my trail running shoes and some clothes to run in, and I'd have a go at the XTERRA run course (or at least as best as I could do from the course map loaded up onto my iPhone and my fuzzy memory of the course from two years ago).  I'd love to also run the same trails that I mountain bike, but I figured it would be double-productive to do a little mini course recon as well, this time around at least.
The reason I titled the post like I did is because when I think trail running, I think about being surrounded by trees, roots, dirt, and usually rocks.  Maybe, if I am out west, I can eliminate the trees.  I don't typically think of concrete, overpasses, train trestles, and smoke stacks, but that's exactly what the XTERRA run course is like.  I don't see this as a bad thing, though.  The only other course that even remotely resembles it that I've done is actually Escape from Alcatraz.  Anyhow, I ran the course today and took pictures with my phone (which left me wondering...how did we function before touch screen-compatible thin running gloves? I know the answer to that as well as I do to the question of how we functioned pre-iPhone)  For some general shots of the Richmond venue, see the bottom of my previous post about it.
The first 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile are along Richmond's Canal Walk, so it's concrete and very flat.  There are some signs, etc to dodge, but otherwise it just kind of meanders.  At one point you pass under what I am guessing is part of an old warehouse.
I'm a sucker for urban graffiti art, even when it's planned like this probably is. I'm also a sucker for the panorama feature. Thanks Apple! The line of the course would be the red bricks, and you enter from the right side of the photo and exit to the left side, near the bullseye painting.
You run on some grass at one point, but it's relatively well-traveled grass, to get from the concrete/brick Canal Walk over to the 14th St/Mayo Bridge (I'm going to use landmark names in case anybody wants to go play in Richmond upon reading this).  While in this grassy section, you actually realize that you're running inside of the "wet" side of the flood wall, but considering that you're still probably 10-15 feet above the river, don't worry.  I just thought it was neat that there were ship-like watertight doors on what looked like a building...but I'm a nerd like that.
After crossing the bridge, you've still really yet to hit any elevation change, but as I recall from running the course in June, it's hot as can be.  There's practically no shade, and the sidewalks and roads you run on just get so hot you can fry an egg.
There are really some great views of the James River from the bridge and immediately once you cross over to the south side, but you're in a race!  There's no time to enjoy the scenery of rocks, rapids, remnants of the 20th century transportation and manufacturing industries.  I had time to, though!
From the floodwall, somewhere around mile 1.25ish of the course. Score another for the panorama and my love of taking pictures of urban things.
Now for those who don't know, when I did XTERRA Richmond in 2011, I was not in good shape because I was working aboard a ship, it was only my second XTERRA, and my chain broke with about 2-3 miles to go on the bike.  So I had a much nicer time doing this course this time, in 48 degree temps, not bonking the whole way through.  However, I did forget that the course has its fair share of tricks that separate it from my traditional notions of a triathlon run course (trail or road, really)
When I first saw this off in the distance in 2011, I figured we were running around it. I  figured no way was there stairs in the middle of a triathlon...that would be silly.  I was wrong...and this is the easy big set of stairs (~1.1-1.2 miles)
After going over the stairs I thought were a joke, the run is back to being flat again, this time atop the flood wall on a gravel path.  Again, there are some fantastic views for a transportation nerd like me (I find railroad tracks, shipping containers, industry-like things fascinating.  My favorite view of New Jersey is driving up the Turnpike and having the panorama of the NY skyline, shipping terminal cranes, planes taking off/landing at Newark, the 9 lanes in each direction of the Turnpike, factories and the big refinery around Exit 13. Yes, I'm weird.)  The nice thing, though, is there aren't a whole lot of places to roll your ankle (like I did in a "regular" 10k trail run a few weeks ago, and there are plenty of places to go fast.  However, there are plenty of places that make it damn near impossible to go fast.
This seems innocuous enough, right?  A fairly quick course, it would seem.  After all, who ever heard of a "trail run" that takes place under an overpass?
It's right after 1.5 miles that the "fun" begins.  That is, XTERRA Richmond begins to show that it's not just gravel paths and sidewalks and the occasional staircase.  The picture above is shortly before the "Mayan Ruins" which can only be described as the fury of Quetzalcoatl himself.  Then again, if I were him, I'd just say the hell with it and go around.
You don't often see this on the side of a triathlon run course...
You get lured in first by the first real test of your trail running balance skills on a very iffy downhill.  The day I ran it, it was wet, which made hopping down from step-like rock to step-like rock awfully difficult.
The turnoff from the under-the-overpass section is your first real shot at trail running, and you'll be begging to get back on the road as soon as you start up the Mayan Ruins. (coincidentally, how funny that I would visit this place a mere 5 days before the Mayans predicted the end of the world, at least according to the History Channel)
This photo doesn't do it justice.  In summer time, everything will be green, possibly starting to overgrow it a little bit, which makes it that much more difficult.
The Mayan Ruins are quite terrible, really.  Having now done Escape from Alcatraz, my mind obviously wants to compare the Mayan Ruins with the Sand Ladder, and they definitely share similarities.  The Sand Ladder is definitely longer, but the Mayan Ruins are steeper.  On the Sand Ladder, I didn't have to use my hands, but the Mayan Ruins I had no other choice.  This also means that I don't know it's possible to "run" the Mayan Ruins.  You can for the Sand Ladder, albeit at a great energy expenditure for very little gain in time (I walk/hiked it).  The Mayan Ruins are so irregularly spaced and sized though, that you're never even really sure of your footing, and if you do slip, it's going to hurt.  With the Sand Ladder, it's just sand so it's not that big of a deal really.  I feel like if you fall on the Mayan Ruins, which are a bunch of old railroad ties, you'd better pray your tetanus boosters are up to date.
After the Mayan Ruins is a loooong stretch on flat roads, but it takes a little while to flush your system from that massive effort to crawl up that pile of wood and nails and dirt, so that's probably for the best. The next real exciting little feature is crossing a footbridge across the railroad tracks and going down a spiral-esque stair case.  This is not fun when you've run a significant calorie debt like I did and have no real feeling in your legs.  At this point, you're also near where you entered the trail system for the bike, as well.
From the right, which is up on the side of the cliff, you cross the bridge, then go down the stairs on the left, and end up coming out and running towards where I am standing when I took this (~2.5-2.6 mi)
And again, some more flat, gravely paths for a while, up until the turnaround point near Reddy Creek and the James River Park System Headquarters.  I was heavily bonking at this point during the race, so I wasn't really sure where the exact turnaround was and I couldn't tell from the map, so I just guesstimated.  Looking at my file from 2011 though, I can tell you the turnaround point was at about mile 3.3 (as it would make sense for a 10k, after all)  After the turnaround, you run out along some more typical "trail trails" very close to the river/a parallel creek (that I think must be an old canal)  It gets a little dicey here at times, but you'll manage.  You've been expecting a "trail" run, right?
You zip back onto the gravel path for a bit and there's a short stretch of two-way traffic (demoralizing on the way out if you're as far back as I was because the people you're seeing are about a mile ahead of you), then it's back away from the gravel trails and onto some more fun stuff, including plenty of potential ankle-breaking rocks.
Now, there are other races that take place on this trail system, but this was reassuring. I figured this was probably a good sign, because in this section of the course, the map was all but useless because there were so many little criss crossing trails.
You think you're going to spit back out onto some sure footing after all this running alongside the creek/river, but au contraire mon ami.  In fact, you're about to hit the section of the course that for me was probably harder than the Mayan Ruins: The Dry Way Crossing.  If you've ever looked at the course map for XTERRA Richmond, you see that it somehow crosses the James River over to Belle Isle.  Yes, there's a bridge to do that, but we don't need no stinking bridges.  Instead, you'll hoppity hop from rock to rock.  I'm not kidding.  There were some signs that I vaguely recall to guide you, but on race day, I think you're pretty much good to get on whatever rock you want.  I don't think there's one required line...because I don't know there's a good one.  You will end up running/leaping across little pools of water, but mostly it looks/feels like I would imagine the moon is, except you still weigh the same (otherwise, we have our new secret for getting down to race weight).  This particular day, there was a family on the far bank watching the crazy person jumping across the river from rock to rock, but on race day, there were spectators abound because I would imagine there are quite a few spills.
This was a good starting point, though I didn't see another red arrow until I was 90% of the way across the river.
Now, I should clarify that while this is the river, it's not like there is a true flow over top of it.  The water is generally only in crevices and such, but if it rains the day or two before the race, watch the hell out.  It's going to be slippery.  This part of the course reminds me of when I was a kid at the beach and I would play around on the jetty (much to Mom's terror), so I guess I have that skill going for me.  For you non-coastal folk who never did this growing up, I'm not sure there's another good substitute.  In some ways, this is easier because at least there aren't barnacles covering the rocks and there aren't waves...No, it's still hard as hell, especially considering the fact that it covers the course from about mile 4.3 to 4.5 or so, so you're definitely tired.  Frankly, I barely remember doing it in the race, but I do remember there was another guy near me and we took vastly different lines but were yelling back and forth to each other how we didn't think this was possibly the real course, but the spectators with their lawn chairs and coolers of beer set out on the rocks assured us that it was.
Panorama from the starting point of the crossing.
A look back.  The end is actually the hardest part because you have to actually use your upper body to get up onto some of the rocks. Terrifying for a skinny little triathlete
Once you've crossed the river and the family with two children on a December (or mid-June in your case) day have adequately gawked, it's time to run the last little stretch of the course on Belle Isle.
This is just a sick joke to put at the end of the crossing, but you've got to do it.  I can't imagine there's ever much of a bottleneck here though; this course tends to blow people up and spread them out.
Belle Isle, from what I can recall from my race, isn't anything terribly difficult to speak of.  Then again, I may have just black-out run the whole thing.  I somehow screwed up trying to follow the map when I ran it for fun, so I don't have any real perspective on it.  Sorry.  I will say that around mile 5.1 you leave the cover of shade, basically for good.  You head across the Belle Isle footbridge and back over to Tredgear St, which is where the bike starts/finishes as well, and over to the finish right by the transition area.  It's basically flat once you cross the bridge again, as well, but don't be fooled; those bridge ramps have their incline, especially when you're bonking your way to the finish like I was.  I think I walked the ramps if I remember correctly.
I was so far back in the race that people were out and about, not really aware anymore that a race was going on, so this was tricky on the narrow bridge.  Like most bridges, it has a little bit of a bend to it, but it's really not bad at all.  Once you're across and down the ramps, you're home free on the road and it's time to let it rip all the way to the finish.
Again, after the bridge there's about half a mile to the finish, which is all flat and paved, so you should have just enough to kick it into the finish. Or maybe you don't and all you can think about is getting to the med tent. Guess which I was.
Anyway, I liked the course when I did it (or maybe I blacked out the painful parts) because it's unique.  There are plenty of courses, both XTERRA and just ordinary cross country and trail races that are just flowy wooded areas with some rolling hills thrown in.  Don't get me wrong, I love that too, but this course just adds that little something different that makes it its own thing.  There's a reason why so many of the pros keep coming back to this one, and it definitely isn't because of the wonderful triple digit heat that we get in Virginia in the summer.  This course is great, and I only wish I could do it more often/not suck at it.
For the history buffs: They really like the Civil War in Richmond.  They really like the Civil War in Richmond. They really like the Civil War in Richmond.  Was it, like, important to the war or something?   
Seriously though, part of what I like about it isn't just my transportation nerdiness, but also the various buildings on Belle Isle and stuff that are throughout the course.  You don't get to appreciate it during the race, but I highly recommend you take the time either in the days leading up to the race (perhaps while recon-ing the course!) or afterwards to check out what's around Richmond, and not just along the XTERRA course because that's only 9 miles of mountain bike trails and 6 miles of running "trails."  There's a hell of a lot more to Richmond than that, or so I'm told.  I need to get out and do it myself.

1 comment:

  1. Hey! Great report. I am doing the sprint tri this summer- thanks for all the info!

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