If you've ever run the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail (DRHT) 50k in the past, this year's race will be slightly different. While still being held in early August with the tangible heat and humidity, the course itself will be different in 2013. What follows is a lengthy, detailed description of the course itself. If you're looking to nerd-out over course details, this is the place. Otherwise you may fall asleep.
First, you can read about my past races with the following race reports. My first ultra ever was in 2010 where I suffered a lot. In 2011 I did much better. Last year's race in 2012 was not great but still good enough for me.
Next, the course. The big rule of thumb for running this race is that it runs on an old railroad bed. That means that you need to "think like a train" when you run this course. There are two detours on the trail, one around a gun range and another around a cemetery, but the rest of the trail is flat and straight. Remember, a train can't make a 90-degree turn onto that road so don't do it. It's usually pretty hard to get lost on this trail but it is possible if you're unfamiliar with it.
The trail surface is almost entirely gravel, specifically railroad ballast. This means that some rocks are larger than "average" gravel while other rocks are smaller. There are a few sections that are rougher than others, but these are usually pretty short. One section has some very large rocks but again, it's a short section. There are a few sections with pine needles or dirt or even some very small gravel. There are no railroad ties to hop over except for the switch. This is also the only section of trail where you'll see rails. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
This year's course is going to be entirely on the trail. No more Start/Finish at Caledon State Park, no more narrow roads. It all starts at Mile 0. Quick word of explanation of the Mile markers. I use them as a way to locate yourself on the trail. The trail has mile markers every half mile from Mile 0 to Mile 14.5. That means you'll have half-mile marks for nearly your entire race. So, Mile 0 is the Start/Finish this year. Mile 0 (aka Bloomsbury Road, aka The Caboose, aka Route 605) sees you running along some well maintained trail that's nice and wide. You'll see some existing rails and a switch for the first half mile or so. You'll also see some primitive camping sites on your right. From Mile 0 to Mile 4 is pretty well maintained since it's probably the most used portion of the trail. You'll cross over one road (Lambs Creek Church Road, Route 694) and see a few benches on the side of the trail. Around Mile 2.5 is Warren's Hole (named after a trail volunteer got his truck stuck). This is where you'll see the largest rocks on the trail. Thankfully it's a very short section with large rocks.
Mile 4 (aka Comorn Road) is your first aid station. If you're attentive enough, you'll see the trail camera snapping your picture as you go by. From Mile 4 to Mile 6.5 is maintained but not used as much. You'll have a few dips in this section but they aren't hills. Just small indentations where the trail has sunk for various reasons. The dip at Mile 6 is called The Slump and appears to be caused by a combination of beavers and a leaky drainage pipe. Shortly after Mile 6.5 is the first major bypass on the trail.
The gun range bypass should be in use during the race. If it isn't, then just ignore this paragraph. The bypass starts just past Mile 6.5 where the trail passes next to a new pistol range. At the end of the pistol range the trail spits you out on a gravel road. The signs are pretty clear to head up the hill on the gravel road. Don't worry if you hear gunfire, it's safe. I've never had any issues getting shot over the years. After a short uphill section on the gravel road, signs will point you into the trees for the single-track portion of the bypass. It's pretty much all downhill to the small creek crossing then flattens out. After a short section of single-track, you're back on the old rail bed at Mile 7. The distance between the markers is half a mile but the bypass itself is about 0.75 miles.
From Mile 7 to Mile 8+ is a little rough and rocky. Not many people use this portion of the trail and it shows. You'll come out between two large swamps at Mile 8 and cross the road (Indiantown Road) to your next aid station. Shortly after the aid station you'll pass Mile 8.5 and then a campground. If you look closely, you'll see an old metal box around Mile 9. You'll also see a large post that was used as a railroad marker around Mile 10. From Mile 8+ to Mile 11 is in decent shape even though it's rarely used.
Mile 11 is the 218 bridge crossing. You'll go under the bridge and start to get into the worst section of the trail. From Mile 11 to Mile 15.5+ it's pretty gnarly. Between Mile 11 and Mile 13, it's usually windier than the other portions of the trail due to the proximity to the Potomac River and the open pastures on either side of the trail. Mile 11 to Mile 12.5 is a bit sandier than the other sections but has compacted nicely over the past two years.
Mile 12.5+ brings you to the next aid station (Panorama) where the trail is in some serious need of maintenance. We do our best but it's very rare that anybody uses this section (that's why I created a water cache out here). Around Mile 13 there's a short but open field to run across. It's one of the only sections of trail that's fully exposed to the sun. Other than Mile 0 and Mile 8, the rest of the trail has pretty dense tree cover (except for road crossings, power lines, etc.). From Mile 13 to Mile 14.5 you'll be running parallel to a road (Edwards) before delving back into the trees behind some houses.
Mile 14.5 brings us to the second major bypass and one that will absolutely be in use for this year's race. You can search for news articles on the history of the DRHT trail, the Little Ark Baptist Church (LABC)church, and everyone involved, but suffice it to say, the trail is making a permanent detour here that will be used for the first time this year. I'll be focusing on this since it's new to everyone running the race (including me). The trail will make a sharp left turn off the old railroad bed and into the trees. We've used an existing crossover to avoid the ditch. The LABC bypass will head north of the trail before making a sweeping right turn back to the east where it parallels the old railroad bed.
In this picture, you can see the old railroad bed on the left and just off-screen to the right is the new bypass. The black pipe you see at the bottom of the frame is across the trail. You'll come from the left side of shot towards the pipe and make a left turn into the bypass.
This is what you'll see on the right side of the picture above, the first few steps of the new LABC bypass. There are still some stumps there now and we hope to have it all nice and pretty by race time. But until the final trail is built, use caution.
This is the sweeping right turn mentioned above. I'm standing in the trail with the railroad bed behind me. You'll see some tall stumps that have yet to be removed marked with red tape. These will eventually be removed to make the trail wide enough for a gravel truck. Until then, just follow the trail off to the right.
Well, "parallel" probably isn't the best word. The bypass is an L shape that "bumps out" from the northern side of the railroad bed. What we're doing is going around the LABC cemetery that the railroad used to bisect. So keep the cemetery on your right as you run and you'll be fine. Once you make that sweeping right turn and run "quasi-parallel" to the railroad bed, you'll make some minor zig-zags to avoid trees before cresting a hill. This is the second hill on the course and the second time you need to ignore the "think like a train" rule from earlier (the first being the gun range bypass). At the top of the hill, you'll run down and look for the railroad bed in a small depression in the field where you'll once again enter into the trees. Don't run past the church or down the gravel road.
After the sweeping turn mentioned earlier, you'll see this view. Just run straight. You may see some orange streamers on your left marking the property line, just ignore them.
This shot shows the zip-zag. The guys on the right of the shot are on the trail as are the kids on the left side. It makes a little jog just to avoid the cemetery.
This is a shot looking backwards from the top of the hill. It's how you'd see it when you make the return trip.
The same view as above but with a surveyor's flag and headstones to give it some perspective. The trail is on the right of the shot, the orange flag marks the boundary of the bypass, and the headstones are in the LABC cemetery.
Once again looking back towards the east (towards the turn-around point/Mile 15.7ish), you can see the church, cemetery, and gravel road. This is the top of the "hill" that you need to run down. If you hit the gravel road or dirt tracks in the middle of this shot, you went too far. Just to the left of the gravel road is where you'll eventually end up once you get to the bottom of this hill.
This is what you'll see at the bottom of the hill. It's pretty overgrown but should be mowed by race day. The gravel road, dirt road, church, and cemetery are on your right. Open fields are on your left. This is a bit of a wide "ditch" that is actually the old rail bed.
This is a reverse view, what you'd see going back towards the Finish. You run up the hill to your right where you see the cars. The old railroad bed is the overgrown grass at the bottom of the hill on the left. Don't go that way. Keep the graves on your left as you go back up the hill and you'll see the trail at the top.
Once back in the woods and back on the original rail bed, you'll be in a section of trail that's hardly been touched. I've been active on the trail for a few years now and I've been on this portion once. I've walked the whole thing and it's in surprisingly good shape. We've cleared trees and branches and hope to have it mowed but overall, it's pretty nice. You'll cross another road (Owens) around Mile 15ish (remember, there are no mile markers after Mile 14.5). Around Mile 15.5ish you'll see an existing marker. Take a picture if you brought your camera this far. I've never seen one like it. Around Mile 15.7ish you'll see the black hole, a rather large portion of the trail that has had the ballast removed leaving nothing more than a tiny single track portion down the man-made hill left behind. This should be the turn-around point. The race may continue beyond this point but I doubt it. There is an aid station that should be at the end at Wal Mart (which is very near this part of the trail) but I'm not sure how that will work.
This is what the trail looks like after the LABC bypass. Nothing fancy but remember that it rarely gets any traffic.
And this is the black hole at the turnaround. The skinny single-track trail is on the far left of the picture.