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Blasting through the noise

The Uwharrie Mountain Run is a tough race in the best of situations.

It’s 40 miles of rugged single-track trail in North Carolina’s Uwharrie Mountains, the kind of race that veterans say “runs like a 50.” Rolling hills, stream crossings, roots, rocks – a little bit of everything.

Add in the fact that it falls in the first weekend of February, making it one of the first major East Coast races of the year, and Uwharrie can be a tough day.

Especially if you haven’t run more than 25 miles a week in the last two months.

Unlike the last couple winter seasons, I decided to play it smarter this year and ease back considerably for a month or two, to give myself a chance to heal up after a huge 2011. I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of 2009 and 2010, both years that ended in injuries worthy of a few months in physical therapy.

So after the Magnus Gluteus Maximus 50K in mid-December, I backed off. I knew Uwharrie would be coming up fast, but decided to trust that the base fitness level I’d built up over the course of training for two 100-milers in 2011 would see me through.

It’s only 40 miles in the mountains. What could go wrong?

Driven to distraction

Stan and I at the race start. Photo courtesy of a crazy German guy who overheard Stan and I talking about Solyndra and parachuted into the conversation.

I was mentally exhausted in the few weeks leading up to race day. It had been an especially chaotic time at work and it wasn’t even certain that I’d be able to get away long enough to drive down to North Carolina for the race.

After logging a few hours of work, I was able to bolt out the door and hit the road for Asheboro, N.C., but the five-hour drive was punctuated by a series of stops to answer emails or take calls. I normally use a long drive to a race to get my head focused, but that wasn’t happening this time around.

Between work-related fires, I thought back to my first encounter with the Uwharrie Mountains in 2011. With an I.T. band injury and a day full of rain and mud and cold, I’d logged a 9:33:52 and had a blast on the course. I was hoping for a new personal best on the course this time around, but wasn’t sure whether that’d happen given how under-trained I was going into the race.

In any case, I knew I’d have a great time — the Uwharrie crowd is always very friendly and welcoming. And despite technical trouble during registration that stopped a few of our usual trail crowd from getting in, both Stan and I had managed to score spots on the starting line, so I’d begin the race with some good company.

One blast with the flamethrower later, the starting-line bonfire was in no danger of going out. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Johnstone)

After wolfing down some pasta (and two desserts! and two beers!) at the pre-race dinner Friday night, we crashed early and met up Saturday morning at the starting line, where a redneck dude jump-starting a bonfire was a welcome discovery amid near-freezing temperatures and skies that were once again threatening rain.

Most people use kindling and a lighter to start a fire, but this dude was not messing around. He dragged out a propane tank, attached a line with what looked like a flamethrower nozzle and lit it up. Sure enough, it was a flamethrower. Every guy who was on hand to see that fire-starting exercise had the exact same reaction when he fired up the blowtorch:

Ooooooh. Totally badass. I want one.

After a brief delay as we waited for some stragglers to arrive via the shuttle vans transporting runners to the starting line, we were off on a brief section of road meant to spread the runners out before starting the first long climb of the day, up a rocky ascent that would take us up to the Uwharrie ridge line for our day in the mountains.

And even in that first few hundred yards on the road, I knew my head wasn’t fully in the game.

The Uwharrie Blues

The first 15 miles pretty much flew by as I enjoyed the feeling of being on a course that was familiar after my visit last year. But I soon started losing my mental focus. You wouldn’t know it from my mile splits, but starting at about mile 16, I found myself in a serious funk, my head distracted with thoughts of work, unfinished projects at home, you name it – anything other than the race I should’ve been focusing on.

There was a brief respite of fun just before the mile 20 turnaround, courtesy of two trail goofballs who’d brought out harmonicas and their sense of humor to welcome the runners to the halfway point of the race.

At the turnaround, I found myself feeling overwhelmed by the chaos of the aid station, as friends and family shouted to their runners, volunteers worked to fill bottles, and 20-mile entrants celebrated their finishes.

I headed back out quickly to escape the madness that at any other race would be a welcome sight, and soon encountered Stan on the trail as he was making his way to the aid station. We muttered greetings to one another and griped about how we were feeling. By mutual agreement, we determined that we just weren’t feeling it that day.

Looking a bit worse for the wear on the return leg of the race. (Photo courtesy of Carolina Snapshot, who I was too cheap to pay for the non-watermarked version of this photo)

There’s something about the turnaround at Uwharrie, though. Or maybe it’s out-and-back courses in general. But either way, I felt a new burst of energy at the thought that I was on my way home. Yes, technically I was only halfway done, but the next 20 miles were pointed toward home, rather than away from it. And that makes all the difference in the world.

As I continued to cross paths with 20- and 40-milers making their way to the turnaround, I spent the first mile letting folks know how much distance remained between them and the aid station.

If they’re anything like me, there’s a huge morale boost that comes with knowing you’re less than a mile from the next aid. And if they’re not and weren’t interested in knowing, well, too bad. I was feeling good about the fact that I was headed back and decided to be overly helpful.

The brief adrenaline boost of the turnaround aid station had faded by mile 25 or so, though, and the noise was starting to creep back in. I knew I had a few more gears despite being undertrained, but I just couldn’t cut through the noise in my head to reach them.

So I decided to drown the noise out with some of my own.

I fired up the iPod and, with White Zombie running at full blast, there was no room to think about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible.

Within a mile or so, I reached a group of three guys who were setting a solid pace and I decided to latch on to the back and ride their momentum. With my music and the noise in my head both running at full tilt, I didn’t offer any kind of significant greeting, but they didn’t seem to mind (other than occasionally looking back in an apparent attempt to figure out what the hell I was listening to at such high volume that they could hear it beyond my headphones).

The hill at mile 39, shrouded in fog. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Johnstone)

Other than the occasional drizzle, the rain held off for most of the day and the temperatures steadily rose throughout the afternoon. By mid-afternoon, I had shed my gloves, vest and sleeves and was running in just shorts and a T-shirt – a rare treat in what should have otherwise been a cold and miserable early February day. With the rising temperatures, a fog settled that gave the forest a strange look and I was reminded of what I love about the Uwharrie National Forest – it’s got a weird beauty all its own.

The last few miles of the Uwharrie Mountain Run are a mix of everything trail runners love and hate about their sport. There are long runnable sections free of rocks and roots, where you can open it up and really fly – as best you can with legs thrashed by relentlessly unforgiving mountain terrain.

And then there’s the last mile or so. It’s a section that should be sweet, sweet downhill, with just enough grade to make for an easy descent. Except for the rocks. Scores and scores of loose rocks just waiting to roll and twist the ankle of an unsuspecting runner.

By that point, I was ready to be done with the run, but had to slow down and take it easy through that tough section, muttering to myself the whole way down, and occasionally hearing runners ahead of me and behind me doing the same.

This beats a finisher's medal any day.

But at the finish, I collected my second pottery finisher’s award courtesy of local artisan Michael Mahan and the thrill of a new personal best washed over me. Despite having gone in woefully under-trained, I had cut 16 minutes off my previous finish at Uwharrie. And as I stumbled over to the food table to get some warm soup and a hot dog and whatever else might be warm and edible, I heard someone call out, “Hey, Rob!”

I looked over to see one of the two guys I’d run most of the course with at last year’s Uwharrie Mountain Run. Like me, they’d come back for more and had also set new personal bests that day.

After a quick change into warm clothes, I hopped a shuttle back to my car for a dash to Bojangles for another round of food. Sweet tea and BoBerry biscuits won’t cure cancer, but they’re pretty much a life-changer for a calorie-depleted ultrarunner.

From there, it was back to the hotel for a quick shower and a nap before Stan finished his day on the trail. And because my stomach clearly was in charge for the rest of the evening, we headed out for Dinner Part II, a quick trip down the street to the Blue Mist Barbecue restaurant for what ended up being some of the most amazing barbecue I’ve had yet.

I am reminded yet again of what makes Uwharrie a perennial favorite among the VHTRC and, already, people are talking about getting a big group together to make a huge club showing at Uwharrie in 2013.

I know I’ll be there. Wouldn’t miss it.


  1. Some race days, you’re just not all there.

    Funny, on out and backs, I totally lose steam on the return. I’m excited to see where the trail takes me, and when that exploration is over, my enthusiasm wanes.

    I don’t listen to music often on trail, but it is amazing how much it helps when you’re doing the slog.

    Tuesday, February 14, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  2. Nice work. Let’s hope we can get the gang together for 2013. I miss Uwharrie!! See you Saturday!

    Tuesday, February 14, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

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