Sunday, April 09, 2017

South Mountains Trail Marathon

The rescheduled race was held March 4 at South Mountain State Park, North Carolina, just south of Morganton.  The original race date in January was snowed out.  Since I was going to the race by myself, I decided to camp at the park.  The temperature for the lows were fore-casted to be in the upper 20’s, but the weather was looking dry.  The campgrounds were very nice, with good facilities, nice tree cover, and were not very full.  I decided to buy firewood and have a campfire.  I enjoyed sitting by the fire under the stars.  I slept well Friday night, got up early and got ready, and walked to the start, which was about a half mile away.  It seems like I have accumulated a lot of accessories, and had a lot to prepare, but each race I refine what I like to have with me.  This was my first race with hiking poles.  I had not tried them out before, but thought that I might appreciate them on the climbs.  I was right.  I brought my jacket and gloves with me, but these were not necessary after the first hour.  I maybe should have left them behind to start, but I hate cold hands.  I wore my camelbak, also.  It occasionally swings some when I am running, but it is nice to not have to ration water.  I think I would rather by better hydrated and slow than faster and dehydrated.  The race start was right by a shelter that had a good fireplace.  They were keeping a great fire going, so I stayed by that and chatted with the runners.  I do not have a problem enjoying warmth on cold days, like many other runners seem to.  I hear statements such as “I don’t want to get too used to it.”  But maybe other runners are somewhat masochistic. 

After some instructions, the race director played the banjo to start the race.  (Right on time, which is nice.)  I dropped to the back of the pack.  I realized that I didn’t want the jacket on after the first incline, and stopped to take it off.  That put me last.  I caught up with a pair of runners, and stayed with them for a mile or so, until they dropped back to heed nature’s call.  The first 5 or so miles of the race were essentially all up hill.  I gave myself complete permission to walk whenever I wanted, and especially on the uphills.  The poles were great, but due to unfamiliarity, I didn’t manage to lock them in place.  This would result in them coming apart occasionally.  That was annoying, but not enough to offset how great it was to have poles.  I was with the same group of people, and we would pass each other back and forth.  Some were faster up hills or through aid stations.  I was faster downhills and slow through aid stations.  The first aid station was supposed to be water only, but they had a full spread.  I ate a bit and headed off down the trail.  I was happy that even though I had been slow, I had still added buffer time above the cutoff. 

From the first aid station, the course went steadily downhill to mile nine.  I like running downhill, and took advantage, passing most in my group.  Four miles is a long time to go down a steep grade, though.  The aid station at mile nine (AS2) was near the start finish.  I dropped off my jacket with one of the volunteers.  I should have dropped off my gloves, too, but I didn’t think about it.  They just stayed tucked in my belt for the rest of the run.  I refilled my water, ate, and headed out.

The trail out of AS2 went through the most popular section of the park, going up the cove to High Shoals Falls.  I was looking forward to seeing the falls.  Even though it was still pretty early in the morning, there were a number of day hikers on this stretch.  When I got my first look at the falls, I was surprised at how high up it was.  I knew the falls were 80’ high, but the cascades below the falls went down much further.  The trail up to the falls became steep stairs.  I stopped at the overlook to see the falls better before moving on.  Topping out over the falls, I knew I still had a bit to climb, so I ate my tuna from a pouch.  This was a new test.  I wanted to get more protein, and this seemed to go down easier than jerky.  The next aid station (AS3) was around mile 15.  The trail did a couple “small” drops and climbs.  From mile 12 it went down for about two miles, and then climbed steeply up for three.  I kept thinking that surely I was getting to the top, but each bend would reveal more climbing.  AS3 was at the top of the climb.  I was feeling pretty good.  I hadn’t cramped or hit a wall.  I had been taking salt tablets at the hour, and that was going well.  I walked for a bit to digest food.  The trail dipped and then peaked at mile 16.  This started a steady four mile descent of about twelve hundred feet.  I like down hills in general.  The trails weren’t that technical, and we started seeing groups of horseback riders.  (We would stop and step aside for them, of course.)  But after about three miles of downhill, I was looking for a break.  I walked to the last aid station (AS4) at mile 20.  I was well ahead of cutoff pace, so I wasn’t stressed about getting cutoff.  I knew that there were some big climbs before the end, so I didn’t want to use up any extra energy before tackling those.  I ate a bit at the aid station and headed out, psyching myself up for the last 10K.

I only had a vague idea that there were two big hills between me and the finish line.  I started climbing, and kept on climbing.  The first hill was a 500 foot climb.  It seemed to go on forever, and I used my poles to pull myself up.  I wasn’t able to run too much coming down the 500 feet as I would have liked.  The biggest challenge lay ahead of me.  The trail went steadily up from mile 23, climbing 800 feet of elevation.  I never stopped moving forward, but I was walking slowly.  Two of the racers passed me walking up the trail, putting me last.  My focus was on getting to the top.  The final two miles were downhill, very steeply so.  I ran occasionally, and walked more.  With about a mile to go, a fresh runner caught up to me.  It was the sweeper, who was friendly and stopped to talk to me.  (His name was Johnny.)  He was more than an hour ahead of the cutoff time, but he was just getting a jump on sweeping the trail and pulling flags.  We talked for a bit and he stayed with me to the end.  It was nice to have someone to talk to in this final stretch.  I didn’t push too much harder with his company, but I probably ran faster than I would have alone.

I finished under 6:45. I was happy with my race strategy, and happy to finish.  Six thousand feet of climb and six thousand feet of descent are nothing to dismiss.  The cutoff time was eight hours, so I was glad to be very safely under that.  They took down the finish line right behind me.  I sat there in the grass, happy to be not moving.  I didn’t see the recovery area or other runners, and I was half expecting everything to be gone.  Luckily, there was food in the shelter across the parking lot.  The race director gave me a prize for being last.  It was made out to “DFL”.  I knew it meant the last place finisher, but I wasn’t aware of the acronym at the time.  Some people seemed worried that I would be offended by being “DFL”, but I told them that I didn’t mind being last.  As several of the race staff pointed out, it was a fairly fast group.  I went over to the shelter and ate some pizza and talked with other runners.  I hadn’t been too far behind a couple of the folks I was running with, although not close enough that I could have caught them.  The only area that I felt that I need to improve was being stronger going up hills.  After looking up the acronym, and laughing heartily, I decided that DFL for me stood for “Da Flat-Lander”.  I was the only one not from the Appalachian states, and it showed.  Well, I still don’t have a great plan for getting stronger up hills, but the more I face, the better I will get.  The race was well-run, the trails were mostly pretty non-technical, and the scenery was good.  I’d recommend the race to anyone looking for a solid run in the mountains.

I managed to get a ride back to the campground from a couple of runners heading out.  The race staff were packing up, and gave me all of the open food, like bags of chips, and fig newtons that I wanted.  Since I didn’t really want to drive the 40 minutes into town, this served as my supper.  I stopped by the nature center to get more wood and to chat with the naturalist.  She had worked on the fire crew for the November fire, and had a lot of stories.  I went back to the camp and relaxed by the fire, enjoying the time to myself.  As a comic end to the night, a spark from my campfire landed on the hammock, starting a small hole, which resulted in the hammock splitting in half at 3 am.  There is nothing like dropping more than a foot onto the ground when you are dead asleep.  I just recomposed myself, made a mental note to hang my next hammock further from the campfire, and fell back asleep until morning.

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