There are four of us in the middle of the woods. We’ve just biked down a soggy old railroad grade into the womb of Seneca Creek Backcountry, the prized jewel of the Monongahela National Forest. To a squirrel, we’re camping. Loud and American, having a joyful time cutting wood for the campfire, setting up tents, getting food ready, telling bad jokes, hauling water from the spring. In this bowl of a mountain, the October sun shines off the changing leaves. The frost is all but gone and we settle in to camp.
There are just four of us in this wild, safe place. We are alone. But that solitude changes with the pattering of leaves as a few runners filter through. We offer sustenance. “Getcha’ some water? Quesadilla?”
Friends come to call at our potluck in the woods. They run through every few minutes in a steady stream into the late afternoon. They pick at M&Ms and potatoes; nobody stays too long. We discourage that out of concern, since they’re only halfway there. We’ll see them all again, today and tomorrow, and that’s comforting to everybody.
The four of us are an aid station on the first day of the West Virginia Trilogy—a trio of trail running races around Spruce Knob, West Virginia’s highest peak. These aid stations, more resembling jovial picnics, pop up at each one of the dozen or so West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners (WVMTR) events across the state. This race happens to give its runners more of what they want: a 50k, 50-mile, and half-marathon race on consecutive days, and more time together enjoying the tight-knit trail running community over three nights at The Mountain Institute, an international organization that conserves mountain culture and ecosystems.
Right around the halfway mark of the 50-mile, runner Sarah Bee is ready to drop out. “The aid station crew was convinced otherwise,” says Bee. The crew feeds her crucial calories to keep going. “I move on to the next aid station and, much to my surprise, the crew from the previous aid station was there awaiting my arrival!” The same had occurred at the previous aid station.
“As I neared the finish line, I realized all of the volunteers and fellow runners who offered me help and encouragement throughout the day were there in the rain and darkness waiting for me to cross that line,” Bee says. “I am tearing up…because that moment, that feeling, it’s something I will never forget.”
WVMTR events are all about sharing: sharing this landscape with friends; sharing a passion for running; sharing the suffering of ultra-distance races. Dan and Jody Lehmann started WVMTR fourteen years ago to encourage runners to share their hometown of Helvetia, a culturally-rich town in the wilderness of Randolph County that embraces its Swiss settlement roots. Since then, the club has expanded, adding members and races. WVMTR prides itself on serving up heaping helpings of high-quality events.
“Feeling welcome at club events is an understatement,” says Bee. “The faces you see are familiar from the beginning. Kind smiles, genuine conversation, and a camaraderie that makes you feel as if you’ve known them your entire life. It’s not uncommon to be welcomed into their homes prior to events, or to spend time after events sharing a meal and cold beers.”
Adam Casseday, race director and WVMTR board member, says, “West Virginia is a very diverse and geographically isolated state. Our club pulls together folks across the state who enjoy running trails. We are a tight-knit group that comes together for various races, runs, and events across the year and across our great state.”
This unique club gives runners a reason to gather. Races have come and gone over the years with new ones cropping up to replace ones that fade away. The races get under your skin, too, with challenging terrain and warm friendships. While the distances are long and the physical hurdles daunting, that special community keeps bringing people back each year.
Joel Wolpert is a storyteller for The Wolpertinger, a reclusive, borderline-mythical production company based somewhere in the United States. He’s an active WVMTR member, racer and supporter.