Choosing Your Own Adventure - Cross Virginia Ultra-Triathlon Adventure by Amanda Presgraves
An ultra-triathlon across Virginia sustained by friendship, bolstered with gratitude, and a celebration of bodily strength with inner-outer nature harmonization.
What is Cross Virginia (XVA) and why did we do it?
The thought of Cross Virginia (XVA) began as a small seed of “what if” 1.5 years ago. The idea was persistent. What would it look like to create a challenge on my own terms? To remove the ulterior motives in sport of money, PR’s, podiums and external pressures? What would it look like to reconnect with my most intrinsic nature? As a celebration. To traverse this region I’m so fortunate to swim, bike and run daily. To piece parts together I hadn’t yet seen. To bring others in on it, with me.
It was on our first bike ride together through the rolling farmland hills of the Shenandoah Valley (having the easiest, time-escaping blast over conversations of food creations, meandering life paths, approaches to athletics, and what the heck we want in this world), that I knew I needed to propose the idea to Erin Horil, a fellow Professional Triathlete. Although our racing and training focuses are vastly different— myself, an off-road triathlon, and her attention on short-distance draft-legal racing—we are more aligned in our approach and value found in sport than what you’d see on the surface.
Together we brainstormed a-meaningful-to-us, self-created ultra-triathlon intended as a grounding reminder that we can set off in designing and choosing our own athletic feats—no matter where one is in their journey of sport and self—to pursue a challenge on our terms, in celebration of this world and our bodies.
XVA was a way for us to create a challenge on our own terms - choosing our own adventure. Free of cost, utilizing public lands—a reminder that the pursuit of a deeper connection with ourself and this world is right out our front door—no need for a $1,000 race, copious gear, or extravagant travels. To start our season in an untraditional way, seemed like the greatest celebration and return to what brings us to move day after day.
Photo: Our spirits remained high as we dove into what would become a disorienting blend of fog and haze, peep my favorite Zoot Wetsuit.
Thursday June 8th, at a comfortable 6am-ISH departure, we set off on our initial journey. At the junction of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of Virginia, in Erin’s home of Richmond, we embarked on a smooth 2.5 miles of swimming. Richmond lies at what historians call the “Fall Line” - the point where meandering rivers, small waterfalls, and scattered rapids cascade (“fall”) off hard, sediment and rocks as they make their way to the ocean. That’s where we began, in high spirits, and low water, swimming 4,600 foggy yards through this uniquely magical aquatic terrain of Virginia.
Our well-thought out course was to then cross east 130 miles of increasing elevation from the capital city to the Blue Ridge Mountains, where we would then traverse 30 miles of running north on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park overlooking the Valley west, an area I am so fortunate to call home.
Increasingly poor visibility from the Canadian wildfire smoke left us uncertain, but steadily moving forward. After roughly two hours and 35 miles on the bike, our inability to take a full breath, burned eyes and growing headaches informed us something was off. We pulled out our phones to see air quality red alerts. An AQI hovering around 180 and growing to 260 in the National Park left us huddled on the side of the road contemplating our direction. Our air and dreams suffocated us alike. The circumstances forced us to take a hard look at our intention, and how to honor it.
Persevering through smoky, hazardous conditions was neither a celebration/service to our bodies, nor that of our planet. Aligned in our reasoning, we pulled the plug and waited a week for the winds to change direction. It did however make our second attempt ever more meaningful and imbued with a refreshened sense of “we GET to do this”.
Nine days later, only a few days short of the Summer Solstice, we spent one of the longest days of the year exploring new parts of our selves in every moment of that light (and dark). In custom Zoot-created kits—colorful, playful, doodled foods dressed our biking/tri kits—suiting up brought levity and enjoyment to a daunting day ahead.
Photo: The glow of the sun greeted us at 5:44am. Photo captured by video from Andrew DeVier-Scott
The routine familiar now, we zipped up and easily submerged into the comfortable James River.
It took all but five minutes before we poked our heads up and joked to each other that we were sous vide cooking in our wetsuits. Neither Erin or I were upset about it. June had been uncharacteristically brisk, and we were itching for that summer heat. We glided along the glistening river among the quacking ducks and a few morning kayakers—accompanied by rare clear skies (a respite from the smoke!)—this felt like the gentlest, calm welcome into what was to be the longest day of movement in our lives.
In that moment however we weren’t focused on what lay ahead, only what was right in front of us. You can’t be. We practice steading our mind, taking it stroke by stroke. Embracing the ease of the current downstream, and working together back up again. Triathlons demand you savor the presence and attention of each discipline, each moment. Each head lift and breath into the young morning ray of sun felt like the simplest treat in relation to our previous fog-blinded attempt. Our GPS route after, agreed.
Riding point-to-point is a rarity. Erin and I kept finding ourselves in amazement and wonder. The most empowering pull - our human-powered-pedal could bring us across the state! Time feels different when you are moving to a destination by bike (and foot). Biking presents a juxtaposition - subtle changes in the air, temperature and light are very progressive experiences, yet these gently shifting environmental changes imprint the most noticeable shifts. You feel everything. And that’s the point. Rolling through the young foot-high rows of lush corn in the Piedmont, to summiting the scorching mountain up on Skyline Drive, each pedal offered a breadth of geographical evolution we would audibly gasp and awe at throughout the day.
Photo: Bike route from the James River to Afton Mountain on the Blue Ride Parkway.
The bike route was the connection of common ground between our two homes. Together in the middle, cycling unfamiliar territory alongside the other - in our own mind, body and geography. Starting at sea level in Richmond and making our way to the Blue Ridge region — a treasured, sliver of mountain range that runs across the United States from southern Pennsylvania to the northern tip of South Carolina/Georgia.
The name comes from its vividly blue rugged appearance. Ten miles out from Charlottesville, we first laid eyes on the inviting and strikingly beautiful range - “we get to run THAT soon”. Every part of the day in multiport efforts is a gift. Just when you are reaching fatigue and monotony of one discipline, you balance an undulating sense of staying in the moment with the anticipation of variety - a new focus.
Photo: Over 4,600 feet of elevation were gained over 123 miles, mostly in the final miles of the all-to-familiar Afton Mountain, as we reached the start of our run. Photo captured by video from Andrew DeVier-Scott
Photo: Vegan Mac and cheese and potato cakes at Botanical Plant-Based Fare in Charlottesville ended up saving the day. Photo captured by video from Andrew DeVier- Scott
Our lunch wasn’t your average desperate gas station stop - we knew it would take the same amount of time to slam a full meal (plus, have more for the run/night) as it would to hit a convenience store. This was a peak moment of the day. Even better, transitioning on Skyline Drive from our ride to the run, and popping leftover bites into
my mouth. Little did I know, this would be the last bit of whole food I could put down the rest of the day.
There is nothing quite like the glory of Virginia in peak June bloom. It’s this exact beauty that draws tourists to the region over the summer. Forest ferns are luscious, water is trickling (rushing, if lucky), and contrast that with the show-stopping setting of orange skies against the blue-hued mountainous backdrop.
Photo: Our momentary slowing down to soak up these sights from 3,000 feet over the Shenandoah Valley came without remorse. That’s part of the joy in these self-created endeavors, they are on our own timeline (even if that means we sacrifice a goal pace).
This range of mountains we would extendedly find ourselves (way, beyond our plan - we will get to that) was formed by the powerful geographical force 1,000’s of millions of years ago. Pressing,
falling, heating and ripping of land masses and a unique deposition of rocks that led to the formation of the technical rocky terrain we’d
spend the next eight hours better acquainting.
For more than 10,000 years the land that we’d run was cared for by the Monacan Indian Nation, before being colonized by settlers and erased from history 1700’s. In the early 1930’s the building of the national parks across the country, and subsequently the Shenandoah National Park which Erin and I now benefit, left countless mountain residents evicted from their homes. Landowners, farms, orchards and human homes forcibly pushed away into the Valley. This land that we find richly abundant holds vast historical context that with knowing, only breeds greater depth, perspective and respect. You know your place within a system better when you can zoom out.
The east coast mountains are testing, we’d come to remember. “Keep moving forward” - that’s *all* ultra running asks of you. Particularly following spending the day swimming and biking. Step after step. It’s that simple and that excruciating all at the same time. A painful blessing, but the greatest gift. To solely have that be your only intention, worry, concern - to pick up your right foot, carry your left, drop your toe down and push through the ground. The mechanical motion of a stride is easy, relative to many other challenges people are facing. Gratitude: we would remind each other to hold that front of mind.
We grew quiet as the miles ticked, yet support was pulsating between - helping the other pulled you away from your own discomfort. When your attention is on elevating the person next to you, there is no space to ruminate on your own physiological pain. It changes your feelings, changing your thoughts, changing your body. And so goes the shuffling motion—so be it, no shame—that’s what it takes. A removal of judgement. A measure not by the time but the simple act of forward motion. That, we can do.
This is where our guts were sent through the wringer. Rule of thumb - I know to be prepared for anything when you are exerting yourself hours upon hours. Hard, soft, chewy, crunchy, sweet, savory. Variety is the key.
I learned that despite how much I relish the idea of a handful of trail mix, when I’m pushing limits - that is the last thing I want to attempt to chew and swallow. Soft, melt in the mouth foods are the most satisfying. Less effort, easy to put down, becomes the name of the name.
My memory of snacks became a blur once the sun set. In fact, everything became a blur. There is something so meditative, sleep-like, while running at night. If you’ve ever been in a sensory deprivation tank - that’s the closest I can think of describing it. The minimal stimuli, the following of a headlamp, it’s quiet. Contradicted with the highest sense of discomfort, there is this serene peace you find with that place in time. In the dark, you feel alone. It was the song of the whippoorwills lulling us into the dusk, where we were reminded, we weren’t alone.
The miles were technical, slow-going, and while neither of us wanted to admit it, fatigue was settling. Erin had the idea ahead of time that during the trail marathon we’d each write down a phrase, intention or mantra to read at every mile. Both of us studied Exercise Science at James Madison University—Erin now as a triathlon coach, and myself as a teenage mindset development coach—we understand the power of thought, and the research defending the role our mentality has on our ability to not only finish, but expand ourselves while doing so. However this felt different beyond our personal ability to persevere. This was about one another. Supporting the other. Mile after mile we would speak aloud or meditations, inciting conversation, directing our focus and what turned out to be a symbolic form of reflection. Always when we needed it most.
Those last 15 miles were a humbling pace. We didn’t have much of a goal time for the day, but we did anticipate finishing before sunset. Our naivety is comical in hindsight. At that point, I could only keep down Spring gels, and I was still trying to do that at least once-twice/hour. Erin’s company allowed me to enter realms previously unavailable, to discover reserves deep within, to find peace in that moment and most importantly, meaning. The sustenance of human connection and friendship was an energy I credit to finishing.
We talk about how nature sustains and nourishes us. We are Nature. It’s ourselves and the energy of one another. And after 19 hours of moving, I learned, that is what gets us through. Our challenges are not meant to be conquered alone.
Sharing a goal—and one so testing—alongside another person gives you the gift of a deepened friendship. It showed us that while we love racing, our hearts are here for the lessons of sport and movement. Of being immersed with another in nature. That it can be that simple.
Any one of us can set audacious, once-insurmountable, stretching pursuits. Just because. Because you want to know what it feels
like to reach and be pulled and pushed. To know the limits of your expansion. To become friends with your mind. To know darkness and find light. Just to know what it feels like to connect with every cell of your body. To intimately relate with the world around you.
As humans, we are innately curious beings, after all. We were born creative too - so make something up that gives meaning to you. Create it. Choose it. Follow through on it because that’s what you promised yourself. You can do that today. It
Photo: The final leg of our ultra-triathlon spanning 26.2 miles of primary Appalachian Trail until arriving deliriously at Doyle’s River at 1:10a the following morning celebrating our efforts.
The Final Stats, and Takeaways:
2.5 miles of swimming
123 miles of cycling
and a trail/parkway marathon of 26.2 miles to round out the night.
There is a reverberating sense of meaning that reaching and anticipating has on us. *the process* We spend far longer preparing—looking forward to something —than we do living the culminating event. We completed XVA with an affirming impression to cherish that time. Pursue it
doesn’t start with a triathlon across the state, it starts right where you are.
Photo: Zoot’s bold color sets lighting us through the night! Upon crossing our “finish line” Erin and I found the energy to surprise each other (and our husband-crew!) with “race medals”. Erin hilariously thrifted me a magazine-collaged plate, and myself creating her a “race belt” for her first ultra!
- Run Outfit - Limited Edition Bold Color Set
- Custom Suit
Amanda Presgraves is an Elite Zoot Athlete who uniquely integrates her expertise across food and health, business, athletics, community development and mindset as a: Professional USA Triathlete and Ultra-Endurance Off-Road Athlete, Mindset Coach, Author of “The NonRecipe Book”, and Food Systems Professional located in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley of Harrisonburg, Virginia.