Let me begin by saying that this trail race at the US National Whitewater Center is high on my list of favorite local races. Period. It’s rare that one can race 13 miles of well-kept single track without retracing one’s steps. To have such a well organized race at such a great facility is an opportunity all local runners should seize.
Those who ran the race or paid attention to the weather on January 21st might remember the steady, dreary rainfall that persisted through most of the morning and all of the previous night. One might think this would make for miserable running conditions, especially on rugged trails, but I think the mucky terrain was part of what made this run so fun. When running on a road, rain or shine, every step is pretty much the same. Road races or training runs feel like exercise. However, on the trails, no two footfalls are the same, and the race or run feels more like a wilderness adventure. Add slick, muddy, uncertain footing to the mix, and boredom ceases to exist.
More than 700 runners showed up for this adventure, and just fewer than 200 of us were running the 13 mile race. The rest were running either the 9 mile or 4 mile options. I ran into several fellow members of Davidson Area Running Team, including Bill Weimer and Bobby Aswell, Jr., who were running the 4 mile race; and Mike Molina, who was running the 9 miler. Bobby got a great photo of Bill and me before the race—both us sporting our obnoxious, neon running gear. Also present were fellow DARTers Emily Hansen, Jason Gardner, Steve Bradley, and Joey Walsh, but I did not have much of a chance to catch up with them before the run. Mike saddled up next to me at the start. This was to be Mike’s last run before his marathon in Miami the following weekend, so he was planning to take it easy and have some fun on the trails. I told him to heat up the coffee and save some food for me at the finish.
The start of the race made for some fast and crowded foot traffic. The first 400 yards included a gravel parking lot and some wide foot paths that allowed the large pack to space out before jumping into the trails. As soon as we entered the single track of the park’s North Point trail, the quick pace slowed to a relative crawl. A dozen yards into the tree line lay a short but steep downhill covered in red clay mud. The backed-up traffic forced me to walk down this 10-step hill, which was more than a little frustrating. I wanted to conserve my energy for the length of the race, but I had to make a move since the pack was moving too slowly to let me get into a rhythm. With so many runners lined up on the single track, I had to pass 3 or 4 people at a time with short bursts of acceleration whenever I had the slightest opening. I made several of these aggressive moves in the first 2 miles until I found a pack of 4 other runners who were keeping a quick pace with which I was comfortable.
The North Point was a loop of trail that was tailor made for a minimalist runner like me. The steep uphills were great for high-cadence scampering, and they often led into fast, technical downhills. My approach to these rapid descents could be described as brazen or perhaps a little reckless. For me, more speed = more control. A body at race pace wants to stay at race pace (thank you, Sir Isaac Newton), so if I were to throw on the brakes in the name of caution, I most likely would slide out and lose control. Instead, I let the downhill carry me quickly forward and so my focus could shift solely to foot placement. It’s more fun than a roller coaster, and there are no waiting lines to boot.
After passing from group to group, and making up a lot of quick ground between packs, I had overtaken good 40 or so runners in the first 3 miles of the course. I found my rhythm and focused on breathing and pacing myself so I wasn’t tapped out before the last few miles of the race. The North Point gave way to Goat Hill, which contained the most demanding series of climbs on the course. I settled in behind two 9 milers for much of the climb. I only passed a few people on the ascent to the top of Goat Hill, opting instead to keep a steady forward jpg on the sharp switchbacks. Some other racers were already walking at this point.
After descending Goat Hill and climbing a steep incline on a service road, the course wound its way through the Toilet Bowl. On the trail map, the Toilet Bowl section of the course resembles a plate of spaghetti, but there were still plenty of opportunities to pass other runners by darting around sharp corners and hopping over rock obstacles Jackie Chan style. For a quarter mile of this section, the 13 milers split away from the 9 milers to add a few more twists and turns. Upon joining the same path with them once again, I saw some familiar faces. Hadn’t I passed these 9 milers a few miles back? Now, I would have to make my way around them all over again!
Emerging from the Toilet Bowl (…I guess that sounds bad), we crossed an open field between tree lines and made our way toward the Lake Loop. Here, the 9 milers would break away for the finish, but I still had a few miles left to run. The Lake Loop was a welcome last leg of a foot race. It was scenic, relatively flat, and the footing was fairly secure. If this were a road half-marathon, I would be hurting pretty badly at this point, but the wet trail and the cool temperature kept me invigorated to the very end on this day.
I broke out of the tree line 800 yards from the finish. A pursuer in a white tech shirt—who I later learned was called James—caught up to me and passed me looking strong. The wide open double track turned into a steep, muddy downhill, so I punched the throttle. I whizzed by James and 3 other runners, but James tenaciously kept me in reach. We were shoulder-to-shoulder when the finish line appeared ahead, and we tacitly were egging one another on. “C’mon, man!” I urged. By the last 100 yards, James had passed me decisively, but having that competition to the very end provided for a strong and satisfying finish. I greeted James at the end of the chute and thanked him for pushing me, and he acknowledged me with a hand shake and an out-of-breath smile. My cheering wife was waiting at the finish, as well as Mike, who snapped a nice photo of me at the finish line. I ran the 13 miles in 1 hour, 42 minutes, and 16 seconds for a 7:52 minute/mile pace. Considering the hazardous conditions, I am very pleased with those numbers. Out of the 13 mile pack, I finished 18th overall.
It’s worth mentioning that I definitely chose the right shoes for the job. New Balance really hit the nail on the head with the MT 110. It’s light, it grips a hundred times better than previous NB trail racers, it has a snug, secure fit from toe box to heel cup, and it drains pretty well after having been submerged in muddy water a few times. I decided to wear socks to keep from getting blisters, and I’m glad I did. The socks (which came free in some other race packet a few months ago) were totally wrecked by the end of the day, but there sacrifice was well worth it.
I also must say that I am happy I chose not to wear my GPS watch for this race. First, the winding trails would have caused the GPS readings for distance and pace to be highly inaccurate. Second, even if the GPS were spot on, this is a race where one really should be paying attention to his or her surroundings instead of obsessing over splits and average pace readings.
The more time I spend on the trails, the more I fall in love with them. If you do not consider yourself a trail runner, I suggest getting on some nice single track—or even some finely groomed cross-country course—and finding trail legs on a few easy run days. Running on trails can be addictive, but we runners already know a little something about addiction.
Next on my race calendar (for now):
2/4/12: Winter Flight 8K – Salisbury, NC
3/2/12: Umstead Trail Marathon – Raleigh, NC
5/6/12: Long Cane 50K – Abbeville, SC
9/29/12: Hinson Lake 24 Hour Classic – Ellerbe, NC