Gasoline for the 160 mile round trip to and from Ellerbe, NC: $20. Alarm Clock setting for Sunday morning: 3:30am. Becoming a lifelong “shirt member” of the Mangum Track Club: priceless.
Sunday, April 1st was a great morning for running. I know because I was awake for almost all of the AM hours. While I naturally am an early riser, I had to get up especially early on this day in order to drive 2 hours to Ellerbe, where I would be meeting 50 others for my long run. The Mangum Track Club started in the late 80s when 5 running friends from Ellerbe, NC decided to do a regular point-to-point run from Mangum to Ellerbe (about 15 miles). One of them printed 5 navy blue shirts—one for each partner, and the club was born. Ever since, anyone who joins the Club on one of their scheduled, semi-secret “shirt runs” (which follow the original point-to-point route) gets a free navy blue MTC shirt and becomes a member for life.
So, it’s not having a new shirt that is important; we runners are overloaded with shirts anyway. Rather, it’s what the shirt stands for: becoming part of an extended running community that asks for nothing but the love of running.
Getting to the rendezvous is a bit of an adventure. There is no physical address, and the only landmark is a rusty dog pen on the side a forested rural state highway. This was to be where our run would end, so veteran MTC members packed all of us “newbies” into their vehicles and drove us 15 miles to Mangum (more of a crossroads than a town), where we would begin. I rode with Mark Long, who appeared to be the closest thing to a director this event had. Mark embodied the run and the club; he was laid back, friendly, and just happy to be around new and old friends. The ride to Mangum allowed me to preview the route in reverse. The scenery and road surfaces were great, but I was in store for some major hill climbing after 10 miles or so. Oh well, I have to earn that shirt!
When we arrived in Mangum, there were a handful of runners waiting on us, all fresh from a run. These MTC veterans were doing a double shirt run—out and back from Ellerbe to Mangum to Ellerbe—a total of about 30 miles. Mark gathered all of the newbies for a photo, and then all of the runners in attendance for another shot. After the photo op, a casual “on-your-mark-get-set-go” signaled for us to start jogging. I took a spot at the front of the pack and settled in with a couple of MTC members named Tate and Rosemary. We kept a nice, conversational pace for the 1st 5 miles or so. I was not tracking pace with my watch because this was meant to be a nice-and-easy fun run. Based on the elapsed time, Rosemary estimated our pace as just on the fast side of 9-minute miles. Most of the group was behind us. Tate eventually pulled ahead but stopped on the shoulder of the road to chat with a few of the MTC support crew (who drove back and forth up the route snapping pictures). Rosemary and I continued on.
At the second of 3 water drops, Rosemary stopped and said that she was going to take it easy for the rest of the way, but that I should go on. I was carrying my own water, so I obliged and pulled ahead. We were just shy of 7 miles, so I figured I would take the rest of the distance at marathon pace (8 minutes/mile) or better. The chilly Spring morning was warming up nicely, and the open air along the state highway gave way to fragrant tree lines and peaceful road bridges over calm streams. I had reconfigured my watch to display pace, and I comfortably was keeping a 7:45 pace on the relatively traffic-free highway. At mile 8, a hill slowed me down, but I kept an easy, even effort, and climbed reached the top without breathing heavily.
A short descent found my left big toe slamming into the toe box of my shoe—a result of me having reconfigured my laces that morning. Due to some dorsal pain on my right 1st metatarsal from having tied my laces too tightly last weekend, I was attempting to lace my shoes around the hotspot. I did this symmetrically, but the fewer crisscrosses allowed my feet to move inside my shoes more freely, hence the pounding on my toenail. This would make running downhill a little interesting today.
I was feeling great for pace, averaging 7:30 for a couple of miles in a row without really having to step on the gas. Then, at mile 11, the hill I was anticipating loomed ahead. I settled in, shorted my stride, and focused on relaxing. The top of the hill was nowhere in sight, so I chugged along. When I thought I saw the top, I kicked a little to get there more quickly, only to notice I was kicking towards a false summit. Crap. There were 2 or 3 more of these false summits to come. Veteran MTC members kept driving past me and commending me on my pace for the climb. I just smiled and waved, not knowing how much breath I should save. This was practice for keeping equal effort on long climbs and not resorting to walking. The sun emerged from behind the clouds and began to beat down on me, so I removed my tech shirt to make use of the intermittent breeze. A couple of MTC members were on the shoulder of the road near Bethel Baptist Church, which was the landmark for the true summit of this mile-long hill. “This is the top,” they reassured me, smiling. I rewarded myself with an energy gel and proceeded to glide down the following 500 yards of downhill, slamming my big toe into my shoe with every other step.
At the bottom of the hill, I made the route’s only turn, which would lead us back to where our cars were parked. This stretch of road had some rolling hills, but the gentle breeze was picking up and fanning me off. Two miles later, I passed my car on the side of the road and dropped off my water bottle and shirt. I strode to the stop sign at the highway intersection and tagged it to complete the traditional run. Mark stood by with a camera to catch me as I strode by.
My first order of business was to get out of my shoes and examine my toe. Not too bad, but the pounded toenail likely was not going to stay on much longer. My GPS read just shy of 15 miles, so I hopped up and ran another ¼ mile in bare feet. Then I collected my coveted MTC shirt and headed to the fold-out table Mark had equipped with snacks and treats. As I gorged myself on M&Ms, pretzels, Pringles, and homemade cookies, other runners trickled in and collected their shirts. I spent quite a bit of time getting to know the group and talking shop about training, upcoming races, and common runners we all knew. I look forward to seeing many of my new friends again at MTC’s Hinson Lake 24 Hour Classic in late September. If the experience I had at the shirt run is indicative of the friendliness and hospitality of all Mangum Track Club events (I’m sure it is), I look forward to a very rewarding weekend of running!
Merrell Bare Access: A great zero drop shoe with some cushion to allow for minimalist running over long distances without too much pounding on the feet. If only I had not messed with the laces…
Nathan Quick-Draw handheld water bottle: You forget you are carrying it after a while. Great on a long run where you are not sure where water stops will be.
I dedicated the day’s run to the late Micah True, also known as El Caballo Blanco, a mysterious veteran ultra runner from Colorado who had exiled himself from high-profile civilization to live and run as the Tarahumara of Mexico did. Caballo had been missing after having gone on a run a few days prior. I read of the finding of his body that morning before leaving for Ellerbe. Run free, Caballo, run free.