Let me start out by saying that for this race I did more ambitious training than usual. The last time I trained close to this hard (i.e. actually train) was for the Mount Mitchell Challenge 2019, my first ultrarunning race. After that I just kind of winged it for the rest of the year doing one long run per month between 26 and 50 miles (Link).
Knowing the course somewhat, having scouted it with friends, I knew the course had the potential to be a fast one. Besides one large climb at the beginning, the course was maintained logging roads and with a few miles of technical singletrack. I generally “train” on whatever trail I want to no matter how hard I expect it to be tending towards trails I haven’t seen yet. I just like experiencing new places and trails.
Race Day 3/13/21:
The race day was cool to warm making hydration an issue compared to the colder temperatures earlier in the year. Thanks to Nuun and the electrolytes that were at the aid stations, I was able to stay fairly well hydrated.
The first few miles are as close to singletrack as you get on the course. I spent much of that time chatting with the nice folks I was in the race with until I guess they got tired of me insisting on having a conversation with them, and let me pass. Everyone was super friendly. Entering the beginning of the climb I got in a really comfortable speed hike and took it easy up to the gap knowing that this was just the beginning of the race. I even picked up an old birthday balloon 20 feet off the trail. I figured it would make the scenery of the race more enjoyable for the folks behind me.
The course is an out-and-back with three side trails that you have to go down to collect tokens on the way out, and then you turn around and bypass the side trails on the way back. The longest side trail is the first hill, and I was surprised near the top of the hill when only 4 people passed me going back down as I got near the summit. Could the small field of competitors mean that I could get a top 3 finish? Another strange result of the out and back was that I got to cheer everyone on as they came towards me and vice versa. With the remaining out and backs this was really a highlight. My initial thought with out-and-back courses is the monotony of having to cover the same ground but I think my whole perspective has changed on this format from this race. I got to cheer on new and old friends, as well as Christine, who ended up doing her first ultramarathon that day. This definitely helped keep my spirits up and pass the time.
The aid stations were fully stocked and full of energetic folks, chips, Little Debbies, and Uncrustables, which all kept me going. Overall the course is beautiful and passes by a number of streams and in clear weather has great views of the Balsam Ridge and Cold Mountain. When we were out there, there was quite a bit of fog which added to the mystique of the area. I love this kind of weather and I think it makes running much easier than on a sunny day.
Part of the way through before the second turn around, to collect a token, I passed the gentlemen in 3rd place. I really didn’t think it would be possible but it happened without too much thought. As I got to the second turn around the guy in second place jokingly said, “you need to slow down.” It seemed like he didn’t want to run harder and neither did I!
At the top of the hill, a couple of miles before we had to turn around and run back to the start, the guy in first place passed me and I was completely shocked. He was probably 3 to 4 miles ahead of the guy in 2nd place! That guy was running his own race.
At the turn around aid station, I loaded up on my personal hydration stash from my drop bag, and as I was doing that a new person entered and left the aid station to pass me while saying, “I’m not feeling well, I think I’ll need to drop [out of the race] later.” I was instantly frustrated and amused. I spent the next 7 miles whittling away at his lead on me which was at an uncomfortable pace. Until I spotted Mr. “I need to drop” at the second to last aid station. He left seconds before I arrived. I had to try to catch him after what he said during our first encounter.
At the final aid station, I caught him and left first. Although in the process of catching him my calves started cramping up. Any patch of mud I hit, the cramps would get really aggravated. I guess I should have trained on more flat terrain. Mr. “I need to drop” was always just about 10 seconds behind me. As we got to the final rocky single track my cramps were just too bad and had to let him pass because he was right on my heels. My feet at this point could no longer flex to a point making the rocky trail nearly impossible to run at a decent speed. I was still barely keeping up with him. As we got to the final gravel road I sped past him and just barely snuck past in the final 200 yards. So I managed to snag third place!
As I just finished, Mr. 2nd Place told me that I was less than 30 seconds behind him. A very close race with the exception of the 1st place finisher, who finished 30 minutes ahead of anyone else. Mr. 2nd Place invited me to soak my legs in the ice-cold river across the road which was appropriate considering my continued cramps.
I got comfortable at the finish line by changing into normal clothes and sitting in my official “bug the neighbors whenever they step out the door” lawn chair, which we used extensively during COVID times. Conversations with welcoming and friendly volunteers and 25k finishers really helped pass the time. All the while cheering everyone in. Eventually, I got my 3rd place award and was able to cheer Christine as she finished her first ultramarathon!
I can’t recommend this race enough. The token collection points on the out-and-backs add to the whimsy and cheerful nature of the race. Cheering your fellow runners on as you go was a great time also. Who needs a crowd of cheering spectators when you can be each other’s fans in an otherwise secluded beautiful place.