(Photos provided by Bad to the Bone, credit: Sallah Balloch)
Francesca Conte grew up in Italy where high school sports are not very well developed. Since then she has made up for lost time.
Conte who did run cross-country while attending Point Loma University in San Diego, won five consecutive ultra races from April 2016 to February 2017, including the Fort Ord Trail Run 50K in Salinas, Calif., and the Frozen Sasquatch 50K in Charleston, W.Va.
“The longer the race, the better I do, so I am pretty good at 100- and 50-milers,” she says. Conte has been able to combine her passion for long-distance running with an innovative race she co-directs, the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC).
A ‘championship’ for ultra racing
The Ultra Race of Champions, held in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, caters to both elite performers and regular ultra runners. The May 12 event offers 100K, 50K and 25K options. I will be doing my first 100K at the event. The point-to-point course starts at Camp Blue Ridge and ends at the Skylark Nature Preserve and Lodge.
The 100K has about 11,000 feet of gain and loss. Eighty percent of the course is single track trail and double track trails, 10 percent gravel and another 10 percent is on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
If you would like to rub shoulders, swap war stories and commiserate with some top ultra marathon runners, use the discount code “UROCBLOG17” to get 15 percent off your race entry. Well-known previous competitors in the UROC 100 include Chris Mocko (2017 winner), Cody Reed (2016 winner), Sally McRae and Catra Corbett.
UROC was the conception of James Gill, Conte’s boyfriend. Together, they own Bad to the Bone Sports, their race production company. Conte and Gill also direct other races mostly around Charlottesville, Va.
“I wanted to find an occupation that combined my passion with a ‘job,’ so here I am,” she says. “Being a race director can be very stressful and frustrating, but it is the best job I have ever had. It always changes and I get to do everything from marking a course, to setting up a marketing strategy, to coordinating with police or authorities to negotiating with sponsors. I also do all our graphic design and website work, so it definitely never gets boring.”
My introduction to Bad to the Bone was last year when I ran the 50K Bel Monte Endurance Run. I absolutely loved the race, which was closer to 55K than 50K — but who’s counting?
Packet pickup was a breeze, the course was expertly marked and beautiful yet challenging. And the post-race party was quaint but well worth the ups and downs of the hill course. (I’ll repost and link to race recap)
The birth of the Ultra Race of Champions
Conte gives credit to Gill for conceiving the idea for UROC. The race — the Super Bowl of ultra marathons — is now in its seventh year.
“He saw the need for a ‘championship’ for the sport of ultra distance running, a day when all the best runners in the sport could come together and measure themselves against the competition,” she says. “He wanted to create a race that could offer a substantial cash purse, to support the athletes who work so hard for the sport.”
Gill wanted to create a course that would not favor one type of runner vs. another. It needed to be a course that would be equally challenging for the best mountain runner and the best 100K road runner in the world. He also purposely selected 100K as the distance — instead of 100 miles — to even the playing field.
“The community has received it really well,” Conte says. “UROC always attracts a very competitive field while remaining open to all runners, which represents the inclusive culture of the sport. There are not a lot of sports where elite runners can stand and run side by side with recreational runners. The elite runners appreciate the race because of its competitive aspect and the cash purse and the recreational runners love the challenge, the course and the atmosphere of the event.”
Challenging elevation, runnable trail
The UROC course is hilly and gorgeous.
“The point-to-point course is an ultra runner's dream," Conte says. "It runs through some of the most beautiful single track trails in the area, like the Whetstone and White Rock trails. In addition, the views are unparalleled: high cliffs, velvety slopes and rhododendron-covered meadows. Competitors run through the Skylark property on their way to the second half of the course, giving everyone an opportunity to appreciate its beauty."
For those who like to camp at races, UROC has available options.
"With the start at Camp Blue Ridge, competitors will be able to choose between a wide array of full service cabin options," Conte explains. "Skylark Nature Preserve and Lodge can also sleep 28, allowing 28 very lucky people to sleep right by the finish with incredible views of the mountains and of the UROC finish, experiencing Craig and Anne Colberg’s hospitality. In my book, this is the perfect situation.”
The UROC website has detailed maps and other information about the elevation changes, drop bags and other notables for the course.
For the 100K, there are nine aid stations; while the 50Kers will have six and the 25K racers will hit four. The longest gap between aid stations on the 100K course is 11.3 miles on the Whetstone Ridge Trail
The website promises that aid stations are well stocked with water and electrolyte drink, ice, gels, energy bars, potatoes, fruit, tortillas with peanut butter, jelly and nutella, saltines with peanut butter, jelly and nutella, candies, cookies, chips, pretzels and random treats. Some aid stations will also offer warm food like soup, Noodleaid (chicken noodle soup with Gatorade, special recipe) and quesadillas.
When I did the Bel Monte 50K race, the aid stations were expertly staffed. The volunteers were great and helpful, and the food was in ample supply.
Once UROC runners reach the finish line, all 100K finishers receive a belt buckle; and those who complete the 50K or 25K receive medals.
Why you should run UROC
Conte encourages elite and everyday ultra runners alike to participate in the Ultra Race of Champions.
“UROC is unique because the goal of the race is to compile the most competitive field possible and to offer a leveled playing field,” she says. “Many other races, like UTMB, really favor people who live there and can train on those trails. With UROC, you can be good at many things and you’ll be able to find a course that’s hard, but does not limit your skills to one specialty. In addition, the cash purse is one of the largest in the sport ($21,500).”
For the non-elites, Conte recommends that runners should have a solid base, at least one moderately challenging 50K on trails under their belts and fueling knowledge. “The advantage of the 100K distance is that it is not as daunting as the 100-miler distance, but hard enough nonetheless,” she says.
And even kids can participate.
At 10 a.m. on race day, the Kids UROC will be held. It’s an uphill dash of 100 feet of elevation gain that kids can do while a parent, guardian, other family member or friend is competing.
There are plenty of reasons for everyday ultra runners to put UROC on their race calendars. “The course is absolutely beautiful and breathtaking,” Conte boasts. “For the runners who tend to be star struck, it is always fun to be side by side with some of the biggest names.”
Conte credits the Elite Advisory Council for being instrumental throughout the race’s history and moving forward in making some of the biggest decisions. Council members include Ian Sharman, Kaci Lickteig, Anna Frost, Devon Yanko, Michael Wardian, Dave Mackey, Catra Corbett and Ken Michal.
“We tap into their expertise and opinions quite often. They are big supporters of the event and understand the concept we are heading toward.”
Name: Francesca Conte
Hometown: Born in Merano, Italy, now lives in Charlottesville, Va., and Colorado
Number of years running: 16
Point of pride: “Having realized early in my life that the most important currency is not money, but time to do the things I want to do.”
Favorite race distance: 50-miler
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: SFUELS bars
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “I lived” by One Republic
Favorite or inspirational mantra or saying: “If you are not on the edge, you are taking up too much room.” — Randy “Macho Man” Savage
Where can other runners connect or follow you: Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/francesca.conte.526; Twitter: @frannieconte