The New River Trail 50K begins in Fries, VA, and runs along a a Rails-to-Trails path. Except for a couple paved road crossings, the surface is entirely crushed gravel. Roughly half of the course parallels the scenic New River and the other half heads up along Chestnut Creek and through some forest and countryside. It's October, so you can expect a cool start with temperatures warming up by the time you finish. For us, I believe it was about 40 at the start and maybe 70 by Noon. The course is essentially a giant out-and-back "V" with a short out and back at the bottom of the "V" during the out-bound portion of the race which temporarily turns the course into a "Y".
The aid stations are about five miles apart with one at the "bottom of the V," one halfway up the left side of the "V" and one at the top left of the "V" at the half-way point turnaround. For this reason, it is highly recommended that you carry a water bottle. The stations were very well stocked with pretzels, PowerBar Gels, PowerBar Gel Blasts (chewy gels,) Jolly Ranchers, and other items. Aloong with water, they had Lemon-Lime Gatorade. Volunteers were enthusiastic and encouraging.
Besides the distance, there are two primary challenges to this course. (1) The surface is not as solid as pavement. You not only have loose gravel that will cost you a little traction, but the ground itself is often soft so you're losing a bit o f the force when you push off with each stride. My hamstring, which I never have issues with, was very sore after this race--I assume from the loose gravel sliding out from under my feet when I pushed off. The second challenge is the hills. If you look at the profile, they appear practically non-existent. In truth, you have two long hills that you are either going up or down. From the start to just past mile 6, you are going down a gradual grade, following the New River downstream. From there to about mile 16 (the turnaround) it's a gradual uphill grade. Then, from the turnaround to mile 25.5, you're coming down that same grade. From 25.5 to the finish, it's back up the gradual grade you started down for the start of the race. Keep in mind that I write this as a non-elite runner. I believe most people will notice, if not the ten-mile uphill in the early part of the race, then the five mile uphill finish, even if it's only a 1% or 2% grade. Add to this the fact that in the last stretch, it's later in the day, the sun is higher in the sky, and the temperatures are warmer--oh, and you've already run 25.5 miles--and it can make the homestretch a bit of a challenge. The trail is open to walkers/runners, horses, and bikes, but I saw maybe twelve bikes, four walkers, a runner, and two horses (who weren't on the trail) the entire time.
When you register (at least in 2010) you were given the choice of a pottery tumbler or one of those water bottles with the strap and pouch. I chose the tumbler and it's very nice. It probably holds about six ounces of liquid and has a blue/brown glaze. Age group awards were unique. The categories are (male/female) 39 and under, 40-54, and 55 and over. Unfortunately, with no overall awards categories, it means there's no chance of getting help placing in your age group by someone else finishing high overall. So, if you're 45 and are pretty sure there are three forty-five year olds ahead of you, but one is leading the race. You're not going to place. I saw one person with a medallion, so I don't know if those were special, separate awards for the overall finishers. The awards for the age group winners were running gear and a bottle of wine. Oddly, I don't think the wine was from a local vineyard, but I could be wrong.
A local group hosts a post race soup dinner (with bread, crackers, etc...) Being overheated, I wasn't hungry enough to eat, but others I was with said the soup was good. They also had some fruit and iced tea. Showers were rumored to be available at a nearby facility but we opted for a dip in the New River. It's less than knee deep around the shore and just a fifty yard walk from the parking/finish area.
This is Annette Bednosky's third year of hosting this event. I know from my involvement with Ridge-To-Bridge that a lot goes into pulling these long races off. I think she did a good job. I would have prefered a 7:00 start--it would have really helped me on that last five miles--but I understand the logistics of getting your volunteers in place on race day can make an earlier start difficult. From my perspective, the event went off without a hitch.
You can't help but compare this event to the Frosty 50K in Winston-Salem in January. They are both on trails, though the Frosty 50K does have a lot of "Greenway" pavement. Aside from the difference in temperatures, I can't say I prefer one over the other. Lodging might be a bit trickier with the New River race (we camped in the New River State Park and several camped at the start/finish area) but it's close enough to where you could conceivably drive up on race day. I'm guessing it's two and a half hours from Burke County. This would be a good first 50K for someone since there is nothing really intimidating about the course and the scenery can distract you from any pain and soreness you might experience.