Sunday, January 19, 2014

THAT'S the trail?

In just over two months, I'm planning on running my first ultramarathon: The Leatherwood Mountains 50 miler. Though technically any race longer than 26.2 miles "counts" as an ultra, I decided I didn't want my first ultra experience to be the more typical 50K run. At 31 miles, a 50K is just 5 miles longer than a marathon, and while that's certainly not easy, I didn't want to think of this as a slightly-longer marathon. I wanted to have a completely new and different experience.

To train for a trail ultra, it goes without saying that you need to do some trail running. I figured if I'm going to run trails, I should run them as often as possible, and they should be comparable in difficulty to the trails I'm planning on racing. So I asked my ultra-running friend Brandon to pick a nice, tough trail run for us to try this weekend.

He didn't disappoint.

We met on Saturday in Montreat, NC, a small retreat town near Asheville. Temperature: 23 degrees. Although there was no snow on the ground, a light snow was falling.

Montreat's elevation is 2,500 feet. We'd be running up about 5,600 feet. Needless to say, it wasn't going to get any warmer. Joining us were Brandon's brother-in-law Tom and their friend, whose name I never managed to remember.

We started by running straight up a steep paved road. Within a quarter-mile, we were walking up the steep road. A quarter-mile later we were at the trailhead; more walking ensued. "It gets runnable after a mile or so," Brandon insisted. After about 1,000 vertical feet of climbing, the trail did level off a bit. It also got snowy. We were running through about an inch of fresh snow. Brandon and Tom bounded ahead; their friend lagged behind me. At least I wasn't the slowest.

Brandon and Tom stopped at an icy creek. The normal means of crossing -- hopping from stone to stone -- looked rather treacherous, as many of the stones were coated with solid ice. I managed to pick my way across without getting wet or falling in. More running ensued, now on a gradual upslope.

I caught up to Brandon and Tom at a waterfall. They had already eaten energy bars and wanted to take a group photo. Here it is:

That's me, trying to wolf down a Clif Bar before we need to take off again

Soon we were off again, and before long the terrain became once again too steep to run. We were hiking up through steep snow, and my hand was practically numb from cold. I tried to take a sip from my hydration pack and found the tube was frozen. Fortunately I was able to flex it and get the water flowing again. We were only about 6 miles in to our planned 20-miler. Finally we arrived at the top of Graybeard, to spectacular views. The snow here was a couple inches deep. Tom and Brandon's friend was going to turn around here, which meant that I would be the slowest guy in the group.

Brandon pointed to a steeply-descending path through a bramble: "There's where we go next!"

THAT'S the trail? I thought. It not only didn't look runnable, it didn't look skiable. Down we went. I grabbed on to every handhold I could find, trying to stop myself from plummeting hundreds of feet down the steep slope. Somehow I made my way to the bottom, several minutes behind Tom and Brandon.

Next it was back up a similar slope to another peak. And down again. And up again. This next time we lost what little semblance of a trail we had been hiking up. Brandon: "Let's just climb up. It's a waste of time looking for the trail -- we'll find it when we get to the top."

He was right, but the climb took a while. "How high is the top?" I asked Brandon.

"About 5,600 feet. What elevation do you have now?"


"I think your watch is wrong."

Brandon turned out to be right. After about 100 feet more climbing we did reach the top, at 5,600 feet. It was frigid and windy. Here's the shot Brandon got of me and Tom at the top:

Why do we look so awkward? Because the wind is gusting at 20+ MPH!

The photo fails to capture the volume of snow we had been dealing with all morning. Here's a shot of Tom on some flatter terrain that gives you a better sense of the amount of snow covering the trail:

Now THAT'S snow!

We were all freezing, and my water had frozen solid.

"Don't worry, I've got a different route down; it's much more runnable," Brandon said.

It better be -- it was now 1:30 in the afternoon; we'd been out for 3 and a half hours, and I needed to be finished in an hour and a half.

The first mile down was anything but runnable. Some sections were more aptly described as "slide-on-your-ass-able."

Finally we reached a legitimately runnable road. It was hellishly rocky, covered with snow, and icy / muddy in parts, but for the most part we were able to manage a 10-minute running pace. This compares to the 17-minute pace we had averaged on the way up.

Soon we were back on the runnable trail we had come up at the beginning of the trip. Now we could really stretch out our stride, and I was able to sustain an 8:30-ish pace in sections. Until I went crashing to the ground after tripping over a root. Naturally I bumped the same knee I had injured last Fall. Fortunately, I found I could still run, and kept going, at a somewhat more manageable pace.

I met up with Brandon and Tom again at a creek. "Here's a shortcut home -- it's less than three miles from here."

That was good, because I needed to be down to the bottom in 30 minutes.

This trail was steeper, rockier, and less runnable. But at least there was no snow. I hopped my way down, crashing one more time, until finally we reached a road.

"Tom and I are going to get a few more miles, but just run down this road and you'll get back to the parking lot."

I ran down the blissfully smooth, dry pavement, and found myself back at my car at exactly 3 pm, just when I needed to arrive.

5 hours of running, over 4,000 feet of climbing through snow, ice, and mud, and my toughest trail run ever was complete. What an experience.


  1. Nice write-up Dave. Hope you decide to join us in the future for some more trail runs. I'll try to manage less bushwhacking and less snow.....