A little over a year ago, a rager of a storm that DC residents came to know as “Snowmageddon” stymied my plans for driving down to Asheboro, N.C., for the Uwharrie Mountain Run 40-miler. The race was on, but there was no way I was getting there from here.
So when I toed the starting line last Saturday, clad in a 35-gallon lawn and leaf bag and wishing the steady rain pouring down would end by midday, it was time to take care of some unfinished business.
Martha holds the VHTRC Women’s Half Marathon course record;
Brian is a relative newcomer to trail running but racked up at least three 1st-place finishes in 50K events in 2010;
Brittany was VHTRC’s “rookie of the year” for 2010 after an impressive series of 2010 finishes at distances including 50 and 100 miles;
And then there’s Sean. A sponsored athlete, Sean’s won more races than I’ve bought running shoes over the last few years — including three consecutive wins at Uwharrie from 2006 to 2008. Scary fast.
So yeah, I was the token slow guy on the team. With an IT band that was still irritated after pushing too hard during the fall racing season, I was looking to run a conservative race, enjoy the day and finish under 10 hours — a respectable time on the challenging out-and-back Uwharrie course.
WUS gone wild at Walmart
After meeting up at the hotel Friday night, we headed to pick up our race packets and scare up some dinner. As it turned out, Martha had some trouble with her race registration, so while she sorted that out the race directors let us parachute in on the pre-race dinner (for which we hadn’t RSVP’ed). Very cool.
With a couple plates of pasta (and a glass or two of wine) in our bellies, we made what we thought would be a quick stop at the local Walmart to pick up some breakfast supplies, since we weren’t sure our oh-dark-30 wakeup call would leave us time to hit the breakfast buffet before heading to the starting line at the Uwharrie National Forest trailhead.
We fanned out through the store, each with his or her own bizarre list of dietary requirements in mind – we ultrarunners are fussy, to say the least. Brittany and I wandered off mumbling about needing soy milk, damnit, not regular milk, while Sean was combing the shelves in search of Ensure-brand nutrition shakes, and god only knows what else we were looking for.
Five people wandering aimlessly through a super-sized Walmart … no way we would ever find each other in the store, right? Not so much. We all ended up gravitating to the treadmills over in the sporting goods section. Go figure.
I won’t say we caused any trouble at Walmart … but we may have scared a few natives who thought (wrongly) that they’d be able to get in a quick and quiet shopping trip by hitting the store so late at night.
With Mission: Breakfast complete, it was back to the hotel from there, where we had a couple of beers, goofed around, grumbled about the rainy forecast and organized our gear for race day before turning in early.
Outbound: Trash bag as fashion statement
By the time Brian, Brittany and I reached the starting line for our 7 a.m. start (Sean and Martha were running the 20-miler, which started an hour later), we weren’t in the middle of a downpour, but the rain was definitely hard and steady — enough to quickly soak through the lightweight windbreakers I and many other runners had opted to wear.
Temperatures were in the low 30s, so we were cold, wet and bitchy in fairly short order. A few dozen of us made like sardines in the tent that was being used to stage drop bags. It wasn’t big enough to fit everyone, but tough luck, chumps. Opportunity favors the bold.
Fortunately, Brittany exercised the common sense that a lot of us were lacking that morning and fetched some trash bags from a course volunteer, and soon she, Brian and I were poking head and arm holes in 35-gallon lawn-and-leaf bags that, once properly fitted, hung down to our kneecaps. Not sexy, but definitely effective.
The out-and-back course traverses a 20-mile section of mountain trail in the Uwharrie National Forest. It more or less follows a ridge line, so once you’ve made it through the first steep climb, there are a lot of very runnable sections of trail. Of course, each mile holds a little something special, whether it’s a rock garden of technical mess, a creek crossing, or a short-but-steep climb.
Among ultras, the 40-mile distance is fairly uncommon. And among 40-milers, this is one that ultrarunners often say “runs like a 50.” Meaning: Hard like Chinese algebra. I got a good bit of advice from a North Carolina-area ultrarunner a few days before the race, who told me via Twitter that the course is “deceptively challenging.” He’s a veteran 100-miler who plans to run the Barkley Marathons – a race you have to be crazy to even consider entering – so I took his intel as gospel.
My knee felt a little wobbly at the outset, given the IT band issue that’s been dogging me these past few weeks, but it eventually quieted down and I settled into an easy pace that felt right for the trail conditions and my fitness level. I couldn’t hammer the downhills like I wanted to, but I was moving reasonably well otherwise.
The rain was still coming down steadily through the first aid station at mile 5, but by the time I hit the second station at mile 8, it seemed to have more or less stopped, so I and most of the other runners finally shed our fashion-statement trash bags.
The trail was in pretty good shape despite the rain, but the creek crossings were definitely an adventure. Nothing like slogging through cold mountain creek water at calf-, knee- or thigh-high levels to remind you that North Carolina in February can be a damned chilly place. I fell into a rhythm with a couple of runners from North Carolina, Donnie and James, and the conversation flowed easily as we picked our way through the climbs, descents, rocks and creeks together.
By the time we nearing the turn-around point, the 20-mile runners were already well into their event and were starting to overtake us. Soon enough, Sean blew past like we were standing still, with Martha following shortly thereafter. I missed Sean as he came by and sighted him only after he was well ahead on the trail, but Martha and I traded quick hellos as she came through.
After that, the lead 40-milers were already starting their return trips, while those of us in the mid-pack were still a few miles away from the turnaround. Brian came blazing through in first place, wild-eyed and looking strong. I shouted a hello to him as he blasted through and, finally, Donnie and James turned to me and said “wait, are ALL your friends fast?”
Most of ‘em, yup. The VHTRC never fails to impress.
What goes out must come back
I hit the turnaround aid station at mile 20 at 4:40 or so, putting me on track for a finish well ahead of the 1o-hour goal I’d set going into the day. But in my foggy state at that point, I wasn’t sure whether that would get me to the finish before sundown. I’d packed a headlamp in my drop bag for the turnaround just in case, but I just couldn’t do the math. So as a volunteer handed me my bag, I asked “do I need a headlamp to make it back to the finish?”
He looked at me, looked at his watch, looked back at me, chuckled and said “um, no, you’re good, man.” I realized then that he was right — I was on track to finish at about 4:30 p.m., easily an hour before sundown. Even if my return trip went all to hell, I’d beat sunset — a huge morale boost, knowing that there would be other runners behind me fighting through the darkness to get in ahead of the 12.5-hour cutoff.
My comrades and I stayed tight on the return leg, grinding out the climbs together and comparing notes on past races. Donnie is a veteran 100-miler who’s training for the Umstead 100 this coming April, while James is an Ironman triathlete who was running his first ultramarathon just to get a taste of something a little different. Both were in hella good shape and setting a strong pace, so I knew that if I could hang with them for the trip back, I’d finish in good time.
A few miles out from the turnaround, I saw Brittany grinding it out on a climb, the grim look on her face signaling the IT band trouble that she’s been fighting had taken its toll. She’d anticipated possibly dropping at the 20-mile mark and decided that bailing was the smarter option. We’re both trying to get and stay healthy for the MMT 100 later this spring, so that was a wise call on her part.
After that, the three of us kept an even, steady pace for the next 15 miles or so, passing a handful of runners who were starting to fade and staying well ahead of the mid-packers who were in the chase behind us. I wasn’t sure where we were in the pack, but I figured we were probably somewhere in the middle. It was tough to tell, as there were less than 100 entrants in the 40-miler and we all spread out quickly across the long course.
With a little less than five miles to go, they were both feeling strong and put the hammer down. I was happy with my even pace and decided not to press my luck. As they moved off ahead, I pulled out my iPod and fired up some tunes to keep me motivated for the last few miles. First up was Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Rocket Queen,” a favorite of late, followed by Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect lead-off music combo to get me moving.
I powered through the last steep and rocky downhill leg, rounding the corner to the cheers of a handful of spectators and fellow runners at the finish line. What a beautiful sight. I grabbed the pottery cup that they were handing out as finisher premiums (how cool!) and greeted by my running mates, who’d finished about seven minutes ahead of me and were hanging out and noshing on finish line chow while waiting to congratulate me as I came in. Awesome.
Post-race celebration: Bojangles and beers
I crossed the line at 9:33:52, well ahead of my 10-hour goal, so I finished the day happy. It was good enough for 46th out of 88. Not bad for going into the race slightly broken.
Sean, Brian, Martha and Brittany had pretty good days as well. Brian ended up winning the 40-miler in an amazing 6:10:55, Sean took sixth in the 20-miler in 2:44:41 and Martha was first female in the 20-miler (and 11th overall) in 3:07:40. See? Hella fast.
I changed clothes, caught a lift back to my car and made a beeline for Bojangles, a uniquely Southern fast-food joint that is not to be missed. I am a firm believer in the healing power of a chicken biscuit, fries, mac and cheese and sweet tea.
Back at the hotel, I met up with the rest of the gang and we all piled into my hotel room, had a few beers, talked trash and compared notes on our day on the trails.
Oh, and we pillaged the hotel breakfast buffet the next morning. Viking hordes have nothing on a gang of hungry ultrarunners.