John Calabrese

Willis River 50k 2023

The “Willis River 50k or Less Fat Ass” is one of my favorite races.

Willis River is a mystery. Even if you’ve run the race multiple times you may not fully know it. It’s confusing in many different aspects.

Reporter John Calabrese, ready to race some Willis River miles!

I checked with Q because I was curious the connections VHTRC have to Willis River. It totally feels like a VHTRC race, and I’ve heard many members who have been in the sport a long time say stuff like “that was one of my first ultras.”

Quatro told me:

“Willis River is the outgrowth of a race that was originally called the Swinging Bridge 50k, hosted by Kevin O’Connor, who was around that time the president of the Richmond Road Runners Club. I believe when he handed it over to club’s longtime VP, Barry Kreisa, the course was tweaked and the race name changed to Willis River, but I’m not positive about that timeframe. It has always been two out-n-back segments - the 35k initial section (which used to turn around at an actual swinging bridge) on a constantly-changing trail along the Willis River, and then the “15k” out-n-back on the Bear Creek trail, which is much more established and easier to follow. Lots and lots of water crossings!”

I did find a race report in my half ass internet research by Andy Jones-Wilkins, who toured the course in 2013, when Willis River was in its 13th year.

RD Dan and his crew at registration

I’ve heard many people talk about this race over the years, but I had no idea that a version of it has been around for 23 years.

This is also very similar to what the Willis River race director Dan Pulskamp told me, but I find it so interesting that since it is such an older race more information isn’t out there about it. I like how the race is just ingrained in the ultra community. I talked to people in Richmond road runners, Charlottesville Area Trail Runners, and I even talked to a woman from North Carolina at this year’s race.

Considering the amount of people who do this race, I really respect how Dan directs this race. He doesn’t play the crazy race director or offer expensive swag. He just stands back and lets the race do the talking and it really works with people coming from all over.

I talked to so many people who said this was the first time they attempted a trail run, or their first time running an ultra. The different distance options work for this race, though it doesn’t for some. With this one it brings out a lot of people to see the trail community and if they aren’t feeling the race they can just drop down to a shorter distance.

I’ve run a lot of ultras but there’s nothing out there like Willis River. The Willis River course is in Cumberland County’s Bear Creek Lake State Park, in the very center of Virginia. The trails there kind of just disappear on you at times, so you really have to be paying attention. I like to run this race with 2-3 people around me that are going the same pace as me, just in case. For me this is kind of one of those “just survive” type races; if you get a fast time awesome, but if not, it’s okay because a lot can go wrong here.

I ran Willis River for the first time in 2019. Then ran it again in 2020. So it’s been a couple years since I’ve done this race. I really wanted to run it last year but that big snowstorm we had messed everything up. This race got rescheduled in 2022; I had a conflict so I was unable to make it.

The Drive

It takes me about 2 hours for me to get to Bear Lake Creek. It’s a nice, refreshing drive because I never really go to that part of Virginia. There’s no traffic, it’s very scenic, yet there are places to stop if you need food or gas.

The real race at Willis River is to the port-a-john door


There’s a lot of parking but if you want a good spot get there early. If not you have to walk some. Also, there’s only 1 port-a-potty at the start, so plan accordingly.


I brought 3 bags of candy and 20 dollars to pay for the park fee, and whatever was leftover for a donation to the park. This format is similar to Happy Trails races. Race Director Dan Pulskamp recognized me and gave me a bib. I always get excited when you get a bib at a fatass race-that’s like high quality stuff.

Race Director

Dan Pulskamp owns Virginia Adventures LLC and also puts on Dogwood Ultra Marathons, Night Train 50k, Freight Train 100k/50k, and the Piedmont 8 Hour Run. Dan has put on Willis River for 6 years. All are held in central Virginia - west of Richmond and south of Charlottesville.

History of the Race

This is a very old school race that from my understanding has been happening for 23 years. Don’t quote my half-ass internet research but it looks this way from reading old race reports and talking to people.

It’s pretty incredible this race has not “sold out’ but instead has kept true to itself after all these years. I think that’s what draws me to it so much. It’s rugged, not flashy; with no medals, it’s just an experience all it’s own for everyone to enjoy.


The course isn’t extremely technical and there’s not a lot of vert, but it can be difficult to navigate in parts. The hilarious thing about the course is that it’s very well marked, too. There’s very clear white blazes on trees and the RD marks the course with confidence ribbons. Despite all that, I still get lost. Most the time I just need to stop, take a min, and find the markings — but other times I’ve just completely lost the trail.

There are 3 distance options: a 20k, a 35k, and the 50k.

The 20k turns back at aid station 1. The 35k goes about 10 miles and turns around, as does the 50k at that same point. The 50k runners then continue past the finish area for the 35k with the Bear Creek 10 miler portion.

John Calabrese and fellow trail runners begin the race

The Start

In the back of my mind I wanted to finish this in under 7 hours. I almost did it in 2020, so that was my motivation. I was fired up because, again, it had been a couple years since I last ran this race.

RD Dan released us and the race began. I remember telling someone “wow this is marked better than normal!” — but we still got lost almost immediately. It wasn’t a long stretch, and luckily people came from behind and we saw where to go. That’s a lot of the game here, you will get lost but you’ll get help from others and you’ll help people, too. The first 4 miles of this race really screwed me up; I had totally forgotten what the trail is like. We hunted for blazes and streamers and it got easier to navigate. Somewhere either a little before the first aid station or right after, a guy I was running with poked his eye hard on a low-hanging branch.

The Massanuttens have rocks, and this course has a lot of sticks. On the ground; low hanging sticks; just lots of ones to poke, prick and annoy you. I had a lot of branches poke me, but got my eye only once, though many swiped my legs and body. I bled a little bit on my arms, legs, and hands. There’s a portion I believe right after aid station one that is a burned down area similar to an area near Moreland Gap at The Ring. Lots of briars and stuff there. I cut myself up pretty good in this section. I couldn’t find a great pathway to run it so I just did my best.

The man who poked his eye got help at the 2nd aid station. I’m not sure what happened to him afterwards. It was a weird day like that. I ran with a lot of the same people all day long, but we didn’t talk much and didn’t really socialize. I tried, but everyone was very focused on the trail. I’m usually extremely outgoing during races, but this one had me just really trying to focus.

John Calabrese and Steven Perkins at the finish

The only person I talked to for a long period was a man named Steven Perkins. We ran into each other in a tragic situation. In the beginning of the last 50k loop I was on a stream crossing. For some reason, I was being cautious. Even though my feet were soaked from other water crossings, I was hopping on the rocks across the water. I slipped off a wet mossy rock and went right into the water. I was completely soaked. Luckily it wasn’t too cold out (most of the day the temps ranged from 41 to 53 degrees or so). Steven saw me fall and he stayed with me. I was deflated, as I knew I was going to go over 7 hours. It would have been tight before the fall, but after I took the spill I couldn’t move fast. I stayed with Steven and went into survival mode until we got to the last aid station, which is also the second turnaround point. I hadn’t stopped at any of the other aid stations really, so I drank some soda and popped some Oreos before heading back out. I ran with Steven and a couple others, but still I kept getting lost. Luckily people kept catching up to me so we stuck together. I started going faster the closer we got to the finish. I didn’t get under 7 hours, but I didn’t care. I was happy I finished after taking that fall.

It was a really strange day. I’m glad I finished and things definitely could have been worse. If it was colder out I would have been in big trouble out there, because again I was totally soaking wet.

Even though I had a rough day, I love this race. I encourage all runners to do it. Willis River is an old race that’s a unique challenge. It’s essentially a free race other than a food item and the park fee. We are very lucky to have this race here in Virginia.

50k number in hand