But given the challenging trail conditions, I'm quite happy with my performance in the race, and most importantly, I had an absolute blast.
The race is held at the Springmaid Mountain Resort, an idyllic little piece of the Blue Ridge Mountains that seems to move at a slower pace than the world around it. I drove up with a group of runners that included Todd Hartung, Chad Randolph, Chris Alexander, Eric Reiner, Emily Hansen, Sarah Keen, and Marisa Wheeler. Despite the early 5:20 a.m. departure and the two-hour drive, everyone was in great spirits and looking forward to the run.
You have to park a half-mile from the starting line, but there was a great system of buses to take us to the start, where we quickly picked up our race materials and checked our bags. There were only six porta-potties for about 500 runners, but fortunately being a guy it was easy for me to pee in the woods before the race started.
We only had time for a quarter-mile warm-up jog to the starting line, in a big grass field mown to about 6 inches long. While this might seem a bit rough, it was actually pretty much the best running surface we'd have all day. After a blessedly short speech with a warning to stay on the trail, we were off.
I had looked up an elevation profile of the course before the race and I knew about the four river crossings, but other than that I had very little idea of what to expect. Most of the runners were doing a 5K, but we all ran together for the first mile or so, so as you might guess it was fairly crowded. After about a quarter-mile, the grassy field narrowed and we were all running along a single-lane gravel road. Every 50 yards or so, there was a giant mud patch the width of the road, and there was little to do but run straight through the ankle-deep goo. A woman wearing a fairly flimsy-looking pair of sandals twisted her ankle and fell to the ground in front of me. I decided there wasn't much point in stopping for her; there seemed to be plenty of race officials around and we weren't much more than a half-mile from the start.
Then we got to the first river crossing. I've forded rivers during hikes, but never in a race, and I wasn't exactly sure how to approach it. Generally when you're hiking, you take a lot of care not to fall down since you don't want the stuff in your pack to get wet. I decided to take a cue from the other runners, who seemed to just plunge in and high-step across. The water reached to about mid-calf and wasn't cold, but it definitely slowed you down. Several runners passed me, but eventually I made it to the other side and resumed running without incident. The second crossing followed shortly thereafter, and was a bit deeper, nearly knee-high. I made it through and tried to maintain a reasonable pace.
|A river crossing from the 2007 race|
But what exactly was a reasonable pace? For my first mile, on flat but rough terrain, I managed an 8:06 pace. That's slower than my planned marathon pace and much slower than my 10K PR pace of 7:09 per mile. For mile two, we began to head uphill. At first the hill was quite manageable, but gradually it got steeper. I resisted the urge to walk, and kept going as best as I could. Finally we crested the first hill and started heading down again. But I knew from the elevation profile I had seen that a bigger hill was yet to come. Elevation gain for Mile 2: 226 feet. Pace: 9:23.
In Mile 3, it turned out, there were two major hills, a hundred-footer and the first part of a 300-footer. Both of these hills had stretches steeper than anything in Mile 2, and I slowed to a walk for the steepest stretches. As soon as things leveled out a bit, however, I was able to leap back to a run and despite the 276-foot gain in Mile 3, my pace only slowed to 11:16.
Mile 4 started with the last of the big hill, then plunged steeply downward. The trail was heavily rutted and given the sweat dripping down my glasses, it was hard for me to see in places. I did the best I could, but a couple people passed me on this section, including a woman who seemed to be running insanely fast for these conditions. Mile 4 stats: 142 feet up, 279 feet down, 9:27 pace.
Mile 5 had even more climbing, but also more ferocious downhill sections. The speedy downhill woman actually slipped and fell about 20 yards in front of me, then somehow got back up and kept running. Somewhere in this section, Chris Alexander passed me, but I managed to keep him in my sights. He was running up every hill, while I walked the steepest sections and then ran as soon as things leveled off a bit, and this meant he never got too far ahead of me. Mile 5 stats: 153 feet up, 231 down, 9:28 pace.
Finally, Mile 6. It started with a muddy descent back down towards the river. The footing was terrible, but it was worse if you tried to slow down. I was concerned my feet would slide out from under me, so I just ran as fast as I could. Somehow I made it to the bottom of the hill and the third river crossing. I had passed a few guys (including Chris) in this section, but a couple passed me back during the crossing. On the level section after the crossing, I passed one of the guys again. We reached the final crossing and somehow I managed to make it across without getting passed. I saw a couple runners struggling ahead of me, and I still seemed to have gas in the tank, so I passed them, trying to look as strong as possible as I did. Mile 6 stats: 0 feet up, 122 feet down, 8:19 pace.
The last 0.2 miles ended up being .34 according to my Garmin, but they were on fairly good trails or mown grass. I focused on good form and made sure no one passed me as I strode through the finish line. Todd, Eric, and Sarah had already finished and congratulated me soon after I crossed the line. Chris was only about 30 seconds behind me, and Chad followed shortly after that. Emily followed soon after, and Melissa, who had run the 5K, was already done.
My time was good for 72nd place out of roughly 200 10Kers (the official results haven't been posted yet). Generally I do better relative to the field, but I think the challenging nature of this course scared away less-die-hard runners, so this was a very tough field of runners. As an indication of how tough the field was, Sarah was the only runner in our group to get an age-group award. Great job, Sarah! Here's the whole group of us post-race:
|Left to right: Sarah, Marisa, Emily, Chad, Me, Eric, Todd, and Chris|
GPS plot of the race is below.