2017 St. John Trail Race

About 17 years ago, Debbie noticed an advertisement at the back of AMC Outdoors magazine. It was for an AMC adventure travel trip to Maho Bay Camps in St. John U.S. Virgin Islands. She was most interested in the fact that 70% of St. John is part of Virgin Island National Park, and she was enthralled with the prospect of sleeping in a tent overlooking the Caribbean. I ended up buying the National Geographic map of Virgin Islands National Park and giving it to her for Christmas. That was probably 2001, the year we got married. She so badly wanted to go to St. John… and happy to have made good on my promise to take her there!

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Maho Bay Camps shut down before we ever got there, and it took 17 years, but to make this trip better, she got to run a trail race! As a bonus, we brought our children with us…and a mother-in-law too. None of that would have been possible in 2001!

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Monday’s St. John Trail Race was a fantastic event and in many ways, it was like the tough trail races that we run in New England. The fact that I didn’t fall once is a race highlight. It’s been six weeks since cyclocross season ended with a bang at the USA Cyclo-Cross National Championships. I raced three times that week and since then, haven’t ridden any of my bicycles once. I’ve done some skiing and a little bit of running. I used this race to get moving again.

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Another highlight was Debbie’s win. The course was tailor made for her, with wicked ups and downs, lots of rough singletrack, and nice transitions in between the hard parts. Who am I kidding! It was all hard. The only flat spots in St. John are ON the water. The win wasn’t a huge deal, but it was a nice way to kick off the 2017 trail running season. I’ll write a separate post about the trip and our other St. John adventures, but this story will focus on the race.

Monday (President’s Day) races are extra special, and who wouldn’t want to run in the Caribbean? Last year, Race Director, Kyle Hart, and his team of volunteers, hosted the inaugural trail race. We were fortunate to stumble across this event when planning this winter family getaway, that coincided with our kids February break. Debbie built the trip itinerary around the race.

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From prior research, we knew about St. John’s other famous running race, the 21-year-old 8 Tuff Miles, which is all on the “road.” That race is Saturday, and I gather that some of the local runners from the Virgin Islands and maybe a few others who stuck around, will do it too. If you plan a one week trip, running the double is possible. Sadly, we returned mid-week so the kids could get back to school and so Debbie and I could get back to work. Now that I’ve seen Centerline Road (Rt. 10), I want to come back and run 8 Tuff Miles. It may be on road, but the steep ups and downs, numerous switchbacks, and rough pavement make it more like a mountain running race.

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Debbie located the trail race registration on Ultrasignup.com. At first, only she registered, but I wanted to do it too, so we convinced (it didn’t take long) my mother-in-law, Barbara, to join us on the trip. She is happy to spend time with our kids, which gives us the time to both run. The course was fantastic and we got to see several parts of the island that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The race was open to 50 people, 43 registered, 41 started, and 40 finished within the cutoff time. By permit, the National Park Service limited the registration to 50, and mandated a four-hour window of time that we could be on the park roads/trails.

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This was a low-key event, which we like. In many ways it was like three of our favorite events, the Soapstone Mountain Trail Race, the 7 Sisters Trail Race, and the Mt. Greylock Trail Race, though Sisters isn’t low-key anymore. If you are from New England, then you know these rugged courses. If Debbie and I added up the number of times we have done these three New England classics, it would be more than more than 50!

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Half marathon +/- is a perfect trail race distance, especially in February. Debbie mentioned afterward that she would have liked to do it out and back, for a total of 27.4 miles. That sounds like an adventure to me, but the park service would have to lengthen the cutoff time. Also, I wouldn’t want to be deprived of the finishing venue, so you would have to start at Coral Bay, run to Cruz Bay, and then run back. Who is going to be the first one to do the double? After all, I know many runners who have doubled Soapstone, Sisters, and Greylock.

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The exact distance of this point to point course from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay, was 13.8 miles, and my GPS reported that there was 3,238 feet of elevation gain which is substantial for a race of this distance. The pre-race info said it was +2,772, but regardless of the exact number, it was hilly. My Strava profile shows that. The trails themselves were gnarly; they were strewn with rocks and roots, and there was a lot of off camber descending.

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Part of the race director’s simple ethic was to use limited markings, so you had to study and know the course. Green ribbons signified the correct route. Yellow ribbons indicated a trail junction. Red ribbons signified the wrong way. A few spots had arrows. The course was posted on the Trail Run Project website/iPhone/Android app, and many of us carried our phones. Kyle also promoted a self-supported category, and he gave awards to the top female and male finishers who took no outside aid. The unofficial definition of self-supported in an ultra is that you have no crew or pacers and use the aid stations and your own drop bags. In a short race like this, it isn’t that hard to go on your own, and the only real requirement is that you carry everything you need, including food and water.

There were several water stops, but Debbie and I skipped them for the added challenge. We used our UltrAspire packs (Debbie used her Spry and I used my Alpha) that each carry 40 ounces of water, and have room for a flask (of Tailwind), food (gels), and other gear. I also carried an UltrAspire handheld bottle with another 16 ounces of water. I ran out of water on the last descent, so I timed it well. Judging by how much water I drank at the finish line, I could have used more, but I got by with what I had. By the finish, the temperature was already well into the 80’s (Fahrenheit) and the sun was baking hot.

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With the limited markings, and many trail intersections, navigation was tricky. I paused at several trail junctions to think through my next step; often reviewing the map and trail names that I committed to memory. Normally, you could easily tell which trail was the main trail, and the likely trail to take, but with your heart rate jacked up to 165 in the middle of a race, it isn’t easy to figure out. I didn’t make any “wrong turns” per se, but after several intersections, I ran tentatively until I confirmed that I made the right choice. On the final descent to the historic Emmaus Moravian Church in Coral Bay, I stopped at a three-trail fork. I was descending the Jeep road when it split; I saw that the middle trail had red tape across it. I was thinking that I should just continue via the trail I was on, but the far-left trail also seemed inviting. Suddenly, I was confused. I didn’t recall this junction, so I decided to pull out my iPhone and check the Trail Project app.

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That proved to be difficult. I was so sweaty that I couldn’t get my Touch ID to work. Then, I couldn’t input my password. After a frustrating couple of minutes standing in the middle of the trail, worried that I would get caught by a chasing runner, and frantically trying to dry my hands (with little success), I got my password in. Then, I couldn’t open the app. Every iPhone function was a struggle as I sweated profusely in the hot sun. I started to shuffle down the trail I was on, though lacking confidence in the direction I was headed. Finally, I was able to open the app, click the “To Do” menu, find the St. John Trail Race, and click the location arrow to find my position. Fortunately, all the struggle was for naught because I was on the right trail and darn close to the finish.

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I broke into a sprint again, as the grade steepened sharply. In a ¼ mile, the dirt changed to concrete and I could see the church. After crossing the road, running through an overgrown ball field, hugging the bay, and winding through a maze of old boats, cars, trucks, and other stuff, I finished through the back entrance of the Skinny Legs Bar and Grill. It was one of the most interesting trail race finish lines that I’ve crossed… but I loved it! It was unique and if there ever was a “double” St. John Trail Race, I insist that the finish still be at Skinny Legs. When I got there, the post-race party had already started and soon enough, the beers were being passed around. This was all good fun at 9:30 A.M. on a Monday!

Race Director Kyle Hart got tremendous help from his father and mother, and a host of other island volunteers. The race proceeds benefitted St. John Rescue. Prior to the race, he kept everyone informed via Ultrasignup.com emails and Facebook updates. The afternoon before the race, he held a mandatory pre-race meeting next to the Cruz Bay dock at the National Park Visitors Center. Kyle and his Dad handled registration and talked through the details of the course.

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They warned us about the rugged trail conditions, which varied wildly. We started on the dock at the visitor center and then ascended a series of trails that took us to Caneel Hill. The Cruz Bay trails get much traffic, so they were in good shape. They also get the attention of the NPS. We eventually descended to Centerline Road, which is the main feature in 8 Tuff Miles.

A quote from the Trail Bandit’s 2014 St. John Hiking Map says it all, “When walking along the sides of the roads, face oncoming traffic and be ready to jump in the bushes. The roads are narrow and at times there is a lot of traffic. Centerline Road has a lot of heavy trucks and can be unpleasant and dangerous. Remember, we drive on the left.”

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Well, most of that was true. The only difference was that we were running, not walking. You could face oncoming traffic some of the time, but there were many switchbacks, which made alternating from side to side the safest technique. We were on Centerline for just under two miles. Unlike 8 Tuff Miles, which draws more than a thousand runners, the road was open to Monday morning traffic. It wasn’t too bad, but the admonition to “be ready” was honored.

I hammered the road stretch, running the 4th mile in 7:40, but was still happy to return to the trail that ended up being my favorite: L’Esperance. It descended from Centerline all the way to Reef Bay. The requirement was to then take the short spur trail to the beach, before turning back. This was the only part of the course that overlapped, and it was only a few hundred feet. No one was there to check, but who wouldn’t want to check out a beach like that in the middle of a trail race?!

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The L’Esperance descent was followed by the long climb back to Centerline. This was done on the iconic and historic Reef Trail, which was the best maintained trail that we ran on. This is likely because the NPS guides hikes down this trail to the beach. Guests are shuttled by vehicle to the trailhead, and then after their hike down, they are shuttled by boat back to the NPS dock in Cruz Bay. That sounds fun, but I’m still glad we got to run the trail. The trail work was high quality and there were gorgeous stone steps on several sections. I even saw the tools of a trail crew worker (axe and pack) on the side of the trail. However, there was no sign of said trail worker. It must have been a stealth trail crew.

At the top of the Reef Trail, you crossed Centerline, ran 50 feet, and then hooked a sharp left into the woods. The trail was so grown over that I wouldn’t have found it if there wasn’t a volunteer nearby. If Reef was the best maintained trail we were on, then Maria Hope was the worst, but that made it tremendously fun. It was a wicked descent (much of it off camber) down to Maho Bay on North Shore Road (Rt. 20). I was really happy with my new shoes. For more than three years, I’ve been struggling with plantar fasciitis. This stems from calf and ankle tightness, which I’ve been working on, but with only limited success. Debbie is on the Altra Endurance Elite Endurance Team, so she got me to try the Lone Peak 3.0 shoes that she has had so much success with. They are zero drop, have a wide toe box, and have a nice lugged sole; which is what I need to stay in contact with the ground. The trail was so rough, that at the bottom, it looked more like a drainage. It could definitely use some work, but I didn’t twist my ankle, so in my story, I’m glad it was as rough as described. Debbie loved it. She only finished 10 minutes behind me, and I’m certain she was gobbling up time and closing the gap on every descent.

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We turned right onto the road and wound our way past lovely Maho Bay. Despite the early hour, there were a few folks on the beach, and they offered cheers. The course wound along the road, rising and falling before meeting back up with the water again on the Old Danish Road. At the Annaberg Sugar Plantation ruins, it turned to dirt, and eventually the trail narrowed again and became the Leinster Bay Trail, which hugged Waterlemon Bay. The Danish Road/Leinster Bay Trail stretch was the “flattest” on the course. It’s too bad my legs were hurting at this point, otherwise, I might have pushed harder. Of course, those fast “road miles” only offset the numerous slow miles I ran on the tougher trails.

The last part of the course just might be the toughest. The Johnny Horn Trail was wicked hard. It climbed sharply from the beach, and continued to climb, stepping several times, before cresting with sweet views of the eastern part of the island. The views of St. John are reason enough to suffer through 13.8 miles. I don’t think I’ve done another race that has better views (mile for mile) than this one. It was beautiful. If you had taken the time to take the numerous short spur trails, the views would have been even better. I met a few runners who did just that. I had Debbie chasing me, so I opted to stick to the main trails.

The Johnny Horn descent was steep and had a lot of loose footing. It was an old Jeep road. I already described my near wrong turn and sweatfest, and I explained the Skinny Legs finish line. Race Director Kyle Hart and the volunteers deserve a big “thank you.” So do Nathan and Jessica DaSilva, “trail friends” from Connecticut, who graciously offered space in their Jeep. They picked us up (with the help of another friend) in Coral Bay and drove us to the start, so we didn’t have to fetch our car after the race.

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We arranged for a taxi to pick up Mrs. Schieffer and our kids at the Concordia Eco-Resort, so they were at the finish when I got there. I think they arrived just in time. Skinny Legs was only a 10-minute drive from where we were staying.

It was great to meet people from all over, including others from New England. The post-race mood was festive. Debbie scored first overall woman (2:37:38), first Master woman, and first self-supported woman. They shouldn’t have allowed her to “triple-dip,” but the awards came so fast, that she was a little surprised.  I was first Master male.We have a plaque for every room in our house! The race was scorched by Derik Harrison, a 24-year-old Coloradoan working in Cruz Bay. After the start, I never saw him again…until the finish, which is OK, since I have 20 years on him. When I got to Maho Bay, one of the volunteers cheered for me and yelled out that he was happy to see gray in my beard. That was my favorite moment of the day!

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Derik ran 2:07:44, which is fantastic, and 15 minutes faster than the 2016 winner’s time. It would be interesting to see how he would stack against some of the top New England talent on our terrain. He was followed by T.J. Hindes, a native Indianan, in 2:19:18.  I followed T.J. and was chased by Michael Cote-Wurzler, who was followed by Debbie. She bested the 2016 female winner’s time. Second woman was Hannah Allen of Vermont, and third was Sarah Swan, a native St. Johnian.

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Lookout for Derik at the 8 Tuff Miles later in the week. If he recovers well, and he should be in contention for the win.

Debbie and I already discussed a return. It may not be in 2018, but if this race keeps running, we will keep it on the list of races that we would love to do again.

Race Results

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