By Jeff Nations
Olivier Leblond remembers his first marathon, of course, crossing that finish line to achieve a milestone any runner would be proud to call their own.
It was finished, then, at least for a while. No more running.
About four years ago, the Arlington resident put his running shoes back on -- for 10Ks, then 10 milers, finally back to marathons. He didn't stop there -- Leblond discovered the challenge of ultra-distance running, a pursuit that led the 41-year-old to Shenandoah County last year for the 33rd running of the Old Dominion 100-Mile Endurance Race.
For more than 17 hours -- 17:14:06, to be exact -- Leblond traversed the roads and forests of central and southern Shenandoah County. It was his first 100-mile race, and Leblond won it by more than 30 minutes.
"It's a great course," Leblond said. "It was my first one, so at the time it was all new. There were some points where you don't feel good, but I was in front. So mentally if you know if you keep going, you can make it."
Leblond has run in several 100-mile races since that first foray in the Shenandoah race last year, but the unique terrain -- hills and all -- is enough to lure him back for another run in the June 1 race.
He won't be alone. The Shenandoah 100 Mile Endurance race, the second-oldest 100-mile endurance race in the country heading into its 35th running, annually attracts about 60 intrepid runners. Co-race director Ray Waldron said the numbers are on track for about that number this year, with entries coming in daily for next month's race.
A few, like Edinburg's Jeff Pence and Woodstock's Ralph Bladen, are annual participants. Most come from out-of-town, sometimes even out of country, to test the limits of their endurance.
"It breaks up into something like 70 miles of road and 30 miles of trail," Waldron said. "It's mostly gravel roads we have over in the Fort [Valley], which can be kind of nasty if it rains. It doesn't look like that's going to be a problem this year."
The current course layout, a circle starting at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds in Woodstock and snaking up, down and around the Massanutten Mountains and into Fort Valley before turning gradually back toward Woodstock, has been in place since 1997.
Runners must contend with the rugged terrain, the early morning and late-evening hours of darkness, and of course the daunting distance. And that's just during the race.
"Once you cross the finish line, you can barely move," Leblond said. "The next day, you can barely walk. But after two weeks, I ran a 50-miler."
Not all who start the race complete it, of course. Runners have a 24-hour limit to cover the distance to be eligible to receive the coveted Old Dominion sterling silver belt buckle, and runners who can finish in less than 28 hours can still attain an Old Dominion bronze belt buckle. That's it -- no prize money, little attention -- just a real sense of achievement and a nice belt buckle.
"We're just too small to even think about prize money," said Waldron, whose wife Wynne is co-race director and the daughter of race founders Wayne and Pat Botts. "We've always emphasized that it's the runner against the clock, and we do everything we can to help and encourage them."
The race provides aid stations all along the course, manned by about 50 dedicated volunteers and family members who come back year after year to make the race happen.
Ray Waldron said many of the same runners return year after year, as well, but there are always newcomers and a few who don't come back. Last year, 54 runners started the Old Dominion. Of that group, 26 -- less than half -- finished the race in under 24 hours. Another 13 crossed the finish line with a sub-28 hour time. The rest never got there.
"It's something that nags at you year after year," Ray Waldron said of not finishing. "It eats on you the whole year. They have to come back the next year and beat the race, whether it's 24 hours or 28 hours, whatever their goal is. If they complete it, we may never see them again."
Leblond isn't one of those, not yet anyway. Since first conquering the 100-mile distance, Leblond said he's run 100-mile events in North Carolina (twice) and Washington, D.C., but "they were all flat."
Of course, Leblond or any runner can't simply show up and expect to run 100 miles. He's been training six days a week, building up his mileage to about 100 miles a week. It's a huge commitment for Leblond, who must balance his training with commitments to his family and work. That sounds like a lot, until factoring in that a week's work must be completed in one day in the Old Dominion.
"When you're training for 100 miles, you can't go for a practice run," Leblond said.
There's always the question -- why? -- that all ultra-distance runners must answer, for themselves and from others curious about what it is that draws them into such a demanding and unforgiving sport.
"I wanted to see how my body would react," Leblond said. "It's an experience, just to push yourself to see how far you can go."
In June, Leblond will be doing just that in Shenandoah County. Already, though, he's looking ahead to that next challenge.
"My goal for next year is a 24-hour world race," Leblond said. "After that, I'm done."
For more information on the Old Dominion 100 Mile Endurance Run, visit the website at www.olddominionrun.org or call 540-933-6901.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>