History of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club

by Anstr Davidson

(A version of this article, appeared in the July-August 2000 edition of Ultrarunning Magazine.)

It all started on the trail.

In March 1992, we yielded to Betty Sue Brannen's insistence that we check out the Bull Run trail. Up to that point, we had not believed that a trail so near civilization could be any good. But Chris Scott, Joe Clapper, a couple of others, and I went out for a run from Fountainhead Park to the Marina, almost to Hemlock, and back. Halfway through the run, we said almost in unison, "Wow, you could have a cool ultra here!"

Not only did we discover the Bull Run trail, we met Warren Doyle. Warren, an Appalachian Trail through hiker, was the manager of George Mason University's Hemlock Overlook facilities (the start and finish of BRR). Warren actually recommended we use the trails for an organized event. We were hooked. We discovered the Bull Run Run, and though the VHTRC was not conceived that day, its parents had their first date.

There were several people there at the beginning. The major contributors were Chris, Joe, Ed Demoney, and I. We had shared many training runs together and had organized "events" such as running the Big Blue Trail in four weekends or doing a trail run across northern Virginia in four days. We all had prior race director experience with events such as the Old Dominion 100, the old Massanutten Mountain Massacre 50, and the U.S. version of the Del Passatore 100 km. Part of the impetus to put on a race came from our frustration with Del Passatore. We had worked hard on that road event only to prove that just because you build it, it doesn't mean they will come.

There would have been no BRR, however, if Chris Scott had not picked up the ball and run with it. Chris conceived the unique elements that make BRR so special including the Civil War theme, the runners' declaration of "allegiance" to the North or the South, the design of the course with its infamous "Do Loop," and the cool finishers awards. We decided to make the BRR a spring event and started planning for 1993.

There was one problem--we needed insurance. The easiest way to get insurance was to form an RRCA member club. The biggest problem with forming a club was thinking of a name. After rejecting several silly ideas, we narrowed the choices down to Chris's "Bear in the Woods Club" club and Joe's "Virginia Happy Trails Running Club." (Imagine what the "silly" ideas were!) VHTRC won out. The "Bear in the Woods" faction was placated by adoption of the motto, "Quando Poopum in Forsa Ursus."

But we did use the VHTRC for far more than just getting insurance for the Bull Run Run. I will never forget when Chris first used the acronym "VHTRC." I said "What?" I couldn't even remember the order of the letters. The VHTRC has became a good idea gone horribly out of control.

One of the first steps in BRR planning was to schedule a "shake down" run. In December 1992, we had our first Fat Ass 50. Joe suggested we be different and name the run in French, "le grande derriere." That started a tradition of naming our Fat Ass in a different language each year--German, Italian, Vietnamese, Latin, Swedish, Jamaican Patois, and New Guinea Pigeon. We began another tradition. Our first official event was free. The VHTRC still has far more free events than ones requiring an entry fee.

Egged on by Chris, but aided and abetted by the rest of us, the VHTRC became fertile ground for new trail running ideas. We went years before holding a meeting that wasn't conducted while running on a trail. From those runs came the ideas for: night runs without flashlights during a full moon, the Quad State Quadbuster (running 46 miles in four states), a trail race for women only, "scholarships" for needy BRR entrants, and the ultimate, a 100 miler.

We knew that the notion of putting on a 100 miler was idiocy. When we conceived our 100 miler, BRR was an established event. We had done our share for the ultra running community. We didn't need to put on a 100. But the call was there. The mid-Atlantic region needed a good trail 100 miler. With Ed's leadership, we pulled it off. (Actually, the 100 miler was not initially Ed's idea, but he picked it up after false starts by others.)

While the BRR course was an ultra waiting to happen, the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 course was not. We had run many Massanutten trails, but none of us had seen about half of the trails that would become the MMT course. Ed studied the maps, consulted local authorities (especially the Old Dominion Ride folks and the Forest Service), scouted the ground, and came up with the MMT course. Boy, did it look complicated! But its design is masterful. It is mostly trail with short, interspersed road sections to get the runners off the mountain for aid and to provide breaks from the rocks.

On May 13, 1995, 58 runners started the first MMT. With only two of the 31 finishers breaking 24 hours, storms on each morning, and Waterfall Mountain gaining instant infamy, we had our second successful event.

We now have the pleasant problem of two popular spring events. Each year, we bemoan what April and May do to us. It's not the work as much as the pressure. We got into this knowing the difference between a good and bad event. As a result, we have a reputation for good course marking, well-stocked and unique aid stations, and quality events. But we realize this does not just happen-it requires careful planning and hard work.

From the beginning, there were several others that nurtured the VHTRC. These people played key roles, but kept away from "management" to avoid litigation.

Chris had skillfully drafted the bylaws to be incomprehensible and prevent any democracy from breaking out. We have never had an election of club officers and don't plan to. Chris is our "President for Life plus Five." When he moved to California, we appointed Joe Clapper as the "President for Now." We have no membership meetings.

Two important people joined the ill-defined "leadership" of the club. One was Scott Mills. Scott had been in and out of the group during his Air Force career. When Chris left for California, Scott stepped in to take over BRR. It has become his event. He puts his heart and soul into it. The other person in leadership is Jeanne Christie. Jeanne adds a needed adult influence on the rest of us. She took early leadership of the Womens' Trail Half Marathon and created the Potomac Heritage Trail 50km.

Today, the VHTRC is many things to many people. To some, it is the organization that puts one of the most popular spring trail runs on the East Coast, the Bull Run Run 50, and one of the most challenging 100 milers in the country, the MMT 100. To some women, the VHTRC introduced them to trail running at the half marathon. For others, the VHTRC is several free, low key events-moonlight runs, the December Fat Ass, and a 50 km on the Potomac Heritage Trail, to name a few.

Perhaps, however, the Eagle Run best exemplifies the VHTRC. This run is a trail party hosted by Gary Knipling to spot eagles on Mason Neck (on the Potomac near Mount Vernon). It's held on Eagle Run Sunday in January. (When it hears of the date for the Eagle Run, the NFL schedules the Super Bowl on the same day.) This search for eagles is highlighted by hot pizza at the halfway point, tours of historic homes and gardens, and post-run refreshments. All is orchestrated by Gary and his smile. And it's all free.

For all the club's dirt and hang loose nature, we are pretty high tech. We have given up the pretense of a newsletter. If you join, you won't receive anything in the U.S. mail. We have an active, award winning web page, and we send out all information by e-mail. We have 125 members and only four don't have an e-mail address.

Is the VHTRC for you? Come run with us and see. We have training runs at irregular intervals. Most of our events are free and open to all. Come sing with us, "Happy trails to you, until we meet again; Happy trails to you, keep smilin' until then; Da da, da da , da da."-no one seems to know all the words!

For further information about the VHTRC, go to: http://www.vhtrc.org

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