John Calabrese

Willis River

Were you really lost if you didn’t know you were lost? - Steven Perkins

Willis River 50k: Intro

The white-blazed trails on the Willis River 50k course

I’m going to try my best to write about how hard this race was even though there’s a good chance I won’t be able to do it any justice — but here goes nothing!

This was my 4th time running the Willis River 50k. I knew this was going to be a very difficult run because it had been extremely wet leading up to race day. The melted snow and constant rain were going to combine to put this central Virginia course under water.

In addition to the challenges from the elements, at Willis River there is the challenge of attempting to avoid getting lost. Everyone gets lost at some point. Maybe for a little bit, maybe for a lot of a bit, but make no mistake, you will get confused and go off course at some point. Even though the race is totally marked with blazes and Race Director Dan Pulskamp goes above and beyond by adding additional confidence flags, it still happens. None of us really has an excuse for getting lost on this one. I definitely have no excuse because I’ve run this one many times, but guess what?

Race Day

I hate driving. I have to drive a lot for my daughter, job, etc., so when I pick races, I do try to do local events first, so I can avoid the additional driving. Bear Lake Creek State Park is a little over 2 hours from me. It is a haul, but for what Willis River is I strenuously encourage anyone considering it to make that trek.

The traditional white ribbons used to mark the Willis River course

If you are like me, you will get there close to the 8 am start time. Do not park in the grass in the parking area. Don’t attempt to park in the parking by the trail because you won’t find a spot; just go straight to the ample auxiliary parking. You’ll see people walking up to the start from this area, and there’s plenty of space for parking a short distance from the start/finish area.

Make sure to give a donation for the common aid, some yummy candy or something else tasty for your fellow runners. RD Dan joked that I stole my daughter’s Valentine’s Day candy to gift to friend. It was definitely some good stuff. Thank you, Denise, for picking it up for me!

I joked around with runners waiting for Dan to give the pre-race safety brief. You definitely want to pay attention to the Willis River safety brief, as there’s always something that will come in handy to know. This year it was avoiding briars. I do not like briars. But Dan gave us a path to avoid them (for the most part — we’ll get to this more later), and I noted that.

#9 John taking advantage of a bit of water on the course to cool off on this January day

Am I a 6 or a 9??

About 2 minutes before the start, I saw a guy wearing the same bib number 6 that I had been given. So, I asked a volunteer “am I number 6 or 9?” I was actually 9, so as we were starting I was messing with my bib like a jackass. Totally my fault, which I blame on being sleepy from the drive.

We’re Off!!

All malfunctions are cleared up, and we’re running. I stayed towards the back of the pack. For this race, it’s not a bad idea. I don’t want anyone pushing pace behind me because you have to really pay attention, not only for markings, but the trail was going to have many new obstacles from the weather.


Every time I do this race, it’s an adjustment to get used to the trails. Lots of sticks: be careful you don’t get one in the eye. Also, be mindful of running close, and try not to release or fling anything back that will smack the runners behind you. It’s kind of a weird rhythm that you have to get used to. The first 5 miles are my least favorite, I think mainly because I’m getting used to a weird trail. There are some good runnable spots, but also knee-deep water crossings. Usually, the crossings aren’t as bad as they were this year.

Markings in a clear-cut area of the forest trail, that now had briar sections to navigate


We got to an open area which Dan had specifically mentioned in the brief. He was very kind for carefully marking it, because there were some nasty briars there that triggered not-so-fond-memories of the Barkley Fall Classic. The worst was when I somehow managed to have one briar snap back and hit my backside extremely hard. I’m sure I was bleeding. My legs got pretty torn up, and they stung when I was in the water.

Aid Station 1

I believe this was at the 5-ish mile mark (depending on how lost you got). I did not stop here because I was moving so slow to this point on the course. I was just going to rely on the stuff in my pack. Dan was there joking about us getting wet, and I laughed and headed out.

The Flood

The next part was pretty rough. I started with a pack of about 4-5 runners; one of whom was Steven Perkins, who I had been running with off and on for the first 5 miles. Almost immediately we encountered a huge water crossing. We were lucky the temps were above freezing, but it was still pretty cold.

Mud and Despair


The next 5-ish miles were a dark, muddy mess that reminded me of a not-so-fond-memory of my childhood. It looked like when the poor horse Artax died in the Neverending Story movie, giving in to despair while wallowing in deep mud. Mud, darkness, a sea of sadness, runners falling into water, random blood, etc. There is a reprieve later in this section of the course, though. The toll gate fire road is your best friend. It’s one of the best spots to actually run on, and catch up on time to make cutoffs. It’s too short but it’s lovely, like freshly baked cookies and happiness after all that pain earlier. Save these good memories because it soon gets dark again!

More Mud, Water & Despair

Closing in on the 2nd aid station are some hills, another brutal water crossing, and some spots where you can go off trail and get lost if you are not careful and attentive. As miserable as this sounds, I somehow was amusing myself. I’m really messed up, and I think I need this kind of torture to stay evened out. Or maybe I secretly hate myself and like to see myself in pain. Whatever the case is … . oh, look! we made it to aid station 2!!

Lots of water, mud and leaves on this year’s Willis River course

Go Back and Do That BS Again!

Like at the previous aid station, I did not want to stop. I just used my aid. I said hi, thanked the volunteers, and rolled right out.

I was running with a guy (whose name I can’t remember), primarily because I was going faster, but then I would get off course and he would help correct me. So, we bounced back and forth for a while, and then caught Steven again. Going back through the depressing mud sadness was not fun. We joked about falling into spots that didn’t look deep, only to then fall waist-deep in water. I could laugh about it on the way back, but I was not amused during the first go!

Aid Station 3 (Back at Aid Station 1)

I didn’t stop to eat anything here, but I did stop to talk to the volunteers. I joked with them as they kept saying we looked good, and I was like “don’t you freaking lie to me!!” I needed to just talk it out, I guess, and joke some, because it was rough out there. The volunteers at this aid station were very nice to us.

Dog Friends


In addition to the lovely volunteers that helped our sanity, a pretty little dog appeared in the water. Steven and I called the dog and she ran with us. Personally, I needed this, it made me happy. The dog helped me get though the briar part and the sticky-pokey part and the water crossings, etc., again. I don’t like the first 5 miles of this race and this dog helped. Close to the start area check-in we found another dog! I think both dogs belonged to the same owner, but the dogs stayed together, and we ran on. So we thought anyway. Very close to the aid station we found our buddy again, she ran to the aid station with us, and Dan called the owner.

Beat Cutoff!

I beat the cutoff at the next aid station, but I was moving slow, so I didn’t want to hold up volunteers. I ate some Rice Krispy Treats and left quick. On the way back out for the last 10 miles we saw our other dog friend! Another runner heading in took the doggy to the aid station.

Our new friend settles in on the trail

10 Rough Miles

The last section of the Willis River 50k is my favorite! This trail gets much more casual use, so it does not have as many branches sticking out into the trail. It is still easy to get lost, but there’s a nice runnable section in the middle, and I love the pavilion/aid station area turn around. It’s just a nice sight to see when you get there, and know that your race is about over.


I was with Steven for about a mile, but he dropped me when I couldn’t hang. I was alone for a bit, then 3 guys came from the opposite direction saying they got lost, so it was cool to again run with a pack of people. I like being with others on this stretch, because we can all work together if someone goes off trail.

More defined trails mark the second out-n-back section of the course

About a mile from the aid station a guy said he lost his cell phone, but he could ping it with his ear buds, so he turned around to find it. I didn’t quite understand this, after everything he had been through to get to this point. I would have kept going to the aid station turn around, then find the phone on the way back. He left and we never saw him again. He must have just turned back.

Turn Around/Aid Station

The feeling when you get to this spot is always weird. You kind of want to take a minute, but also you want to be done, especially this year with how hard the race was on this wet course, you don’t want to drag it out. We all headed out and picked up Steven there as well.

Couldn’t Hang!

I really fell off the pace pretty hard the last 5 miles, and I couldn’t keep up with the group. So, I ran the last 3 miles pretty much alone. I really was tired and was beyond sick of the trail. It burns you out from having to pay close attention as you try not to get lost, avoid obstacles, etc.

I believe I got to the race finish a little after 4 pm (8 hours and some change). I talked to the friends I had run with and we took some pictures. Told everyone “thank you,” and started to head to my car. I would have liked to stay and chat. I felt really cruddy just rolling out, but it also started raining almost immediately. Everything about the day was hard, even the finish/celebration!

Final Thoughts

If I butchered the sequences, locations, etc. I apologize. I was extremely out of it on this one.

I really am shocked by how hard this race was. Congratulations to all the finishers and for everyone just toeing the line out there. No matter if you finished or not, didn’t get the time you wanted, or anything, take pride. This was by far the hardest Willis River 50k I’ve done.

I’m hoping that this one toughened me up for stuff ahead this year. I can’t wait to compare it in terms of difficulty to other races I have coming up. Part of me fully believes that even for a 50k it’s going to be up there with the likes of TWOT and the Reverse Ring. Even though Willis River kicked my ass, I’m glad I toughed it out.

Do This Race!

If you want a real grass roots trail experience that can be extremely difficult, sign up for the race. Also, if you do sign up, please show up and run, or volunteer and help Dan out. There’s a good chance I’m going to run this race until doctors make me stop running. I still am hoping next year we get a snow year. Sometimes this race is easy because you get great weather! Then there’s 2024! Thank you to all the volunteers, runners and everyone who worked hard to make this a great event. What an amazing adventure to kick off the year.