For whatever reason, I’ve always had a fascination with spy agencies and covert operations. In high school, my favorite movie was Mission:Impossible. Even today, I will willingly watch Tom Cruise run through sandstorms, on top of speeding trains, or on top of cathedrals.
So when I heard of the OSS/CIA 50 Mile Night race, it pretty much aligned with everything I was looking for in a race. Spy history. Running. Darkness. Weirdness.
A little background about the race: the OSS/CIA 50 Mile Night run takes place in Triangle, VA at Prince William Forest Park, literally like two minutes off I-95 just south of Washington, D.C. In the days leading up to and during World War II, the Park was home to secretive training for the Office of Strategic Service, the predecessor to the CIA. As the name suggests, it is an all-night run. This year it took place on Saturday, June 8.
It is a two-loop race, each loop is 25.5 miles. Total elevation is around 4700 feet. Race starts at 19:00 (yes, I will be using military time in honor of the CIA). Early start is at 18:00 but those runners aren’t eligible for podium spots), with a pretty tight 01:00 first loop cut-off, and an 08:30 race cut-off.
In the past, conditions for this race are usually hot (65-80F) and humid; last year was both with a brutal thunderstorm thrown into it. I realize 65F with the sun down doesn’t sound terrible on paper, but you are a damn fool to downplay this temperature. More on that to come.
TRAINING, OR LACK THEREOF
I signed up for the race back in December for $95. I had just finished my third road marathon and was looking for something bigger (my only previous ultra was the HAT 50K in early 2018). I had also done most of my training for that marathon at night; with a 4-month old still sleeping in our room, and a 2-year-old down the hall, early morning runs weren’t happening. All of my fall and winter runs during the week happened after 20:00.
My training leading up to this race was quite frankly— terrible. Since my marathon training in November, I had been dealing with a high hamstring tendonitis that would not go away, and still hasn’t. I postponed training as long as possible and almost deferred. But I needed a goal to pick me back up, so with only 7 weeks ‘til race day, I kicked into training mode.
I basically did a lot of night running and did most of my long runs of 8-16 miles after 21:00 in Gunpowder State Park. FYI, this is not allowed, it is a bit spooky by yourself, and I got busted once upon exiting by the DNR police, who were pretty cool about it but told me not to come back at night. Thanks to my dudes Dave Kadis, Mike Vail, and Dave Seel for keeping me company on a couple runs.
My weekly mileage was trash (like 45 max) and I peaked with a 17-mile long run the week before the race. I would not say the hay was in the barn. It was definitely still growing in the fields with a hard frost coming.
ANOTHER SATURDAY NIGHT
Come race day, I arrived to the start a couple hours early, set up my hammock in the woods and tried to take a nap. Wasn’t happening. I definitely had some pre-race jitters as this was my first 50-miler, and someone’s dog was barking incessantly, so there was no rest for the weary.
Anyway, I checked in and got my bib, then kinda just quadruple-checked my drop bags to make sure I had the right combination of things I wanted in each one. Volunteers will haul one drop bag to the halfway point aid station on the loop, and you can also stash another one at the start (or just keep it in your car, which is probably parked at the start).
Side note: If you are doing this race, it’s good to get there early ‘cause you can literally park within 100 feet of the start/finish line. If you get there late, you could really be screwed, as the lot fills up and you’re forced to park way down the road.
After some pre-race announcements and jokes by race director Alex Papadopoulos, the 18:00 wave was off, which was probably half of the 102-person field. I took the 19:00 start.
The jitters really got to me around 30 minutes before the race. I was luckily able to force down a sandwich, but I was going crazy inside my head. It was the first time I ever remember having serious pre-race doubts, mostly because my training was subpar for this race. I couldn’t wait for the damn thing to start.
My goal going into this race was to just finish (“A” goal was sub-12 hour). I had done as much prep as I could reading race reports from several years back and asking for advice from a couple people I know who have ran it before (thank you Erin Altemos and Orla Kastberg).
The top takeaways I took from them were: 1) respect the humidity and go out slow, and 2) eat (as much real food as possible) and drink constantly. I kept these at the forefront of my mind.
At 19:00, we lined up, and we were off.
FIRST LOOP AND FIRST TEMPTATIONS
Like Christ in the wilderness, temptations abound.
The first temptation is to take advantage of the light. Since the race started at 19:00, we were only getting bookends of sunlight. Naturally, the illusory vespertine coolness mixed with starting gate fever led to the desire to go out fast. The majority of the pack did not disappoint in this regard, setting out at sub-10-ish straightaway. It was hard not to join them, but I just kept it very chill, like a 12:30 pace or so.
The second temptation is the tendency to overestimate the aforementioned illusory coolness. Being in the first week of June, most runners aren’t fully heat acclimated, myself included. Additionally, the race location is in a limbo zone– not quite southern heat, not quite northern cool. It is almost always humid.
Just coming out of spring, we’re used to cool nights. But the first week of June in central Virignia is a quick ramp-up into summer. I believe the OSS/CIA typical temperature in past years has been in the high 70’s at night. This year was upper 60’s— much better. But still 80% humidity. When running, this is not a cool temperature.
So the mind tells you “it’s nighttime, it’s getting cooler.” The mind does not know.
I consciously drank water frequently, and began taking gels/Kramp Krushers about 40 minutes in. Doing this, while eating as much real food from aid stations as I could, kept me from bonking during the race.
Around mile 6 I had been at an identical pace with a dude in front of me for a few miles, so I struck up a conversation. We hit it off, and we talked intermittently and helped pace/work with each other over the next 25 miles. Thank you, Greg!
The third temptation out of the gate is to think this is an easy race. The first 10 miles are pretty flat (and beautiful), along the South Fork Quantico Creek. Tight single track with a lot of rocks and roots, but mostly flat.
So it’s still light out, it’s getting cooler (but not much), legs feel fresh, terrain is technical but feels somewhat runnable, and you want to get some fast miles in. It is fool’s gold. The second half of the loop will kick your ass if you run hard on the first half and aren’t a talented trail runner.
The fourth temptation is not to carry much water. Maybe you’ll just carry a handheld bottle. You will DNF. I passed one dude about 7 miles in who had just a handheld. When I started the second loop hours later, I passed him again. Except this time he was walking towards me, back to the start.
As for my water equipment, I went with the Nathan Quickstart 4L pack. Going against all advice ever, I bought it three days before and had never run it. I was only wearing a light singlet and thought for sure about a quarter mile in that I was going to chafe hard and it would be a race from hell. No chafing (I did Body Glide everywhere), and it ended up being the perfect pack.
Speaking of water, there are 8 stations. Here is a mileage chart with all their locations.
The first water stop is 8 miles deep, so if you go out hard with low water in 80% humidity, you’re already sous vide. As for that first water stop, after some nice flat single track to start out, it’s a long fire-road incline to the water cooler.
It was around this point that the darkness settled in.
THE DARK NIGHT
Mile 11 marked the first full aid station, which was super legit. On the first go-around, there was an assortment of candy, chips, PBJ, fresh strawberries and grapes, Tailwind, and water, and a ton more. The volunteers here— and at every aid station— were truly incredible in every respect. I grabbed a couple things real quick, then headed out with Greg on the little (but honestly really annoying) 2.5 mile Farms to Forest loop that comes back to the aid station. There we took about 5 minutes to rehydrate, grab some more food, and stretch.
Then onwards to the second half of the first loop. Things got progressively hillier. I’m not totally sure I remember everything perfectly; I went into a dark place around miles 15-20.
In every other race I’ve done, I’ve been great at chunking it into smaller pieces. In a marathon or 50K, I always feel pretty good for the first 10 miles, then when I get to 13-15, I’m at least halfway done and can keep it good ‘til mile 20 where the real race starts.
Not in a 50 miler. I was starting to feel a little tired around 15, and I was like ‘holy shit, I have 35 miles to go.” Also, it’s still 10 miles to the next food aid station and halfway point. I just could not shake that from my head and everything became laborious. I was already power-hiking all the uphills, but it now became a slog. My nagging injuries came back on, I started mentally checking out, and I just constantly felt like I was going nowhere.
There is a stretch around mile 15 that is just long fire road (which is normally great), except it’s just huge rolling hills that go on forever, if I remember correctly. There is then another long-ass fire road climb to the Burma Road water station and gate turnaround (with a check-in). The worst thing about that fire road is that it’s not dirt or crushed gravel, but golf-ball sized rocks that are annoying as hell to run on. So I tried to run on the dirt shoulder as much as I could ‘cause it was killing my feet to run downhill on the fire road.
COMING BACK AROUND
I finally turned the corner in my head when I crossed that 20 mile-threshold. I was able to mentally wrap my head around the rest of the race. Suddenly, everything washed away, my spirits were raised, and my soreness/injury nags just became a dull but manageable pain that more or less stayed the same the rest of the race.
There was some really nice runnable dirt fire road around mile 20 where we were able to pick up some time. Miles 21-25 were back in the woods and along the creek, with rocky, rooty, and constantly winding single track with elevation mixed in. Not gonna pretend it wasn’t annoying.
For the race I was using/testing an earlier production model of the COROS VERTIX GPS watch, which has stupid battery life of 60 hours (it holds up). But by mile 20, the distance on it was a mile and a half shorter than Greg’s Garmin. I assumed the Garmin to be correct, and so we were getting excited as we passed mile 24, thinking we were close to finishing the first loop.
We were not.
The Garmin was way off and we took a mental beating thinking we were so close to relief, when really we had another 20+ minutes to go. My COROS was actually spot on distance-wise.
We finished the first loop in 5:30-ish, which I was pretty pleased with, especially since we made the 6:00 cutoff. I kinda kicked it real slow at the aid station, getting in on some grilled cheese, changing my shirt, stretching out, etc. We were there for like 25 minutes. I don’t regret it.
I took another grilled cheese to go, as well as a bag of grapes. I also restocked on Gu’s and Kramp Krushers, grabbed my backup Petzl NAO+ headlamp, and we were on our way.
I’ll spare you the boring course details again, since the second loop is identical, but these are the highlights of my second loop:
I carried those grapes with me in my hand like they were my last meal on earth. Nursed them as best as I could continually. If I started to feel sick, I stopped eating, then picked up again as soon as I felt good. Also forced down my cold grilled cheese somewhere. Kept eating Gu’s and Kramp Krushers on an every 40-minute basis. Didn’t throw up. Didn’t cramp.
Around mile 30, I was feeling like, damn good. I wasn’t crushing it time-wise, but my pacing was consistent, and I wasn’t lagging physically. I could tell I was starting to pull away from Greg, so I told him I was going to jump ahead.
From there on I was solo. We had already passed a few people who were now walking, and I began to pass a few more. It was like 2 in the morning at that point, so things started to get a little loopy. I started whistling “The Farmer and the Dell,” like Omar from The Wire, convinced that it would be intimidating to anyone who heard it (it wasn’t).
I’d also like to say, the course markings (hanging ribbons mostly) were incredible. They were easily identifiable and spaced close-enough apart. Whoever took care of them is a saint.
This time around, the Oak Ridge Campground AS had pierogis or potatoes and chicken noodle soup. The broth hit the spot. Also crushed more strawberries (and took some to go). Here I also changed socks. This was a mistake because I had slathered my feet previously with Desitin, and had no blisters yet. Fun fact—I had never gotten a blister on my feet in my life until this race.
However, while my new pair of socks were dry, they were also cotton, and I didn’t use Desitin. I also changed into my Nike Terra Kiger 5. I had previously been wearing my Topo MTN Racers, which were pretty fantastic, though I had to readjust the lacing for better lockdown on the downhill fire roads.
Changing into the Kiger 5 was both good and bad. On one hand, they are a fast shoe, which came in handy later in the race. On the other hand, they do not offer much protection underfoot, so I definitely think they caused some problems in the later miles, especially on those chunky fire road rocks. I ended up with one large blister on my middle toe, but didn’t know it until I was finished.
IF YOU WANT TO SING OUT, SING OUT
On that little 2.5 loop I got a little dark in my mind again, and at some point I manufactured a “trekking pole” out of— well, just a stick I found on the ground. Somehow this helped me. I also always sing this song (really loud) that I made up a few years back. A friend and I were mentally and physically destroyed while bike-packing a fully mudded-out C&O Canal trail on single speed bikes. It’s dumb as shit but goes: “I rode/ran [however many miles you’ve run] just to seeeee yoooouuu,” except it’s sung in a Bob Dylan or Tom Waits voice.
It can also go: “Why the f*** did I just run 34.4 miles just to seeee yooooouu?”
I switched my headlamp out around mile 37, about an hour before dawn. Kinda wished I had done it sooner cause that Petzl NAO+ made it look like Friday Night Lights out there. Clear eyes, full hearts.
MORNING HAS BROKEN
I got a really strong boost of energy around mile 40 and just rolled some fast miles on the first stretch of fire road, before basically being forced to walk the Burma Road portion. The sun came up shortly thereafter, which was quite lovely.
Nevertheless, I had one more low portion, as my left IT band outside my knee was not doing well (was it the Kigers?). I was gingerly and half-assedly going up and down hills using my faux tracking pole. I specifically remember walking up another shitty hill around 5:30 a.m., totally alone in some park off I-95, and thinking “what the f*** am I doing?” I never answered that to myself, by the way.
Anyway, around mile 45 I realized “oh, I can actually go sub-12 if I crank it up.”
Then I’m not sure what happened, but I found some shit way down and just went for it. For some reason I was still carrying my walking stick, fully convinced I was some sort of warrior (I wasn’t). At one point while running full speed, I threw it off in a definitive and grand manner, like a weight being tossed asunder. An outside observer would’ve judged this to be mildly uninspiring, at best.
As the sun swung its legs over the shoulders of the horizon for a better view, the woods came back to life, the creek moved gently still, and it was all beautiful.
I was able to get a few 9:30 miles in, and I passed a few runners along the way. I mean, maybe I was being too conservative early on, I don’t know.
That stretch was worth it, as it was some of the best running of my life. I felt nothing except pure running. Elevation didn’t matter, terrain didn’t matter. I was just hitting everything and doing it fast. I felt like I ate a Mario star, and I even remember at one point just having tingles from head to toe. I mean, can I please bottle that up?
This kept up until around mile 50 when I saw a sign that said the starting line parking lot was 2 miles away. WTF. I was sitting at 11:45, did the math and realized there was no way I could get sub-12. It was like a plug had been pulled out of me, my puppet strings cut, my cement shoes now back on. I just started walking again, ready to labor out a couple last 15-minute miles.
I walked a couple hundred yards, then saw the correct sign. The parking lot was less than a mile away. Back on it, baby.
I cruised that last part, bolted out of the woods, across the parking lot, and through the finishing chute. I made up a lot of ground the last few miles and finished in 11:49:42, good for 21st place out of 45 finishers. There were 57 DNFs this year.
Also, heads up, the race is closer to 51.5 miles.
Afterward, I felt… pretty weird.
I will say, I never felt “sleep tired” during the race. I partially contribute this to my life until the age of about 32, when I stayed up til 4 a.m. or later on a regular basis as a touring musician. However, those nights were fueled with smoking and drinking, whereas I apparently now do it with gels and running. So uh, newsflash, I’m not cool anymore.
Anyway, the post-race breakfast was legit. Bless those volunteers’ hearts, they made incredible French toast, sausage, eggs, potatoes, coffee, and more. It definitely took a little bit to calm my stomach down, but once I was ready, I dug in.
After the awards, people started to leave. I strung up my hammock in the woods again, ready to get in a nice nap. I slept about 10 minutes, then was wide awake. So I got in the car and drove back to Baltimore. Then I hurt for a while and couldn’t run for about a month with IT band inflammation.
Any other questions, hit me up in the comments or on Instagram and I’ll respond. Link to my Strava file here.
Reebok Boston Track Club Singlet
Under Armour Faster Bastards Singlet
North Face Better Than Naked 5” Short
Boco Gear Endurance Hat
Kramp Krushers gummies (4 packs)
Gu Roctane (3)
Gu Assorted flavors (4)
Clif Bloks – Ginger Ale (2)
Robbe is the Digital Marketing Manager for Big Run Media/BITR. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and two sons and runs with the Faster Bastards. His favorite race distance is the marathon and his favorite beer is anything but Blue Moon.