After I ran Laurel Valley that first year I have only missed one, due to an injury. It’s not because I love Laurel Valley, in fact I actually dislike it, but there is something special about the run and I know I would regret opting not to run it. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s in the foothills, rather than high elevation. Yellow jackets try to sting you. There are a lot of annoying stairs. The course seems to blur together in my mind so I always think I am a lot closer to the finish than I really am. And then there’s the final climb as you try to crawl your way through the clean-smelling tourists who look at you strangely, as if the climb from the bottom of the waterfall can’t be all that bad. Despite all that, I keep coming back.
This year’s run was pretty uneventful for me. It was extremely humid and I had a tough time about 3 hours in. My clothes were soaking wet and I felt very tired and a little nauseous, but about 4 hours into the run, it started raining and my run and my attitude improved significantly. I did not get stung by yellow jackets this year, I did not pull a hamstring, I finished faster than the last two years (although way off my PR) and I got to see a lot of old and new friends, so all in all, it was a good run.
Laurel Valley covers 35 miles of the Foothills Trail. First the first few years I ran it, the distance was disputed and Claude even had his sweeps try to measure the course with a wheel, but the counter fell off somewhere along the way. Now we know it is 35 miles, but it always feels a lot farther.
The race starts in the dark in the Laurel Valley parking area, near Rocky Bottom, SC. Claude starts the race by firing an antique firearm and off you go. You start up some steep steps and then run on some tight, rooty single-track, rolling mainly uphill, for the first 30 minutes. Then the sun comes up and the trail opens up and for the next couple of hours, the trail is nicely runnable, alternating from single-track to double-track, running along a stream and past waterfalls, before you start some climbs. The lake comes into view and then a particularly tough section starts, consisting of a series of very steep stairs. I think it is 5 climbs before you hit the downhill, which is also a lot of steep and precarious stairs. For some reason, I always fill up my water before this section so I have the added pleasure of carrying a lot of extra weight. You run along the lakeshore briefly, before heading across a long swinging bridge and some more steps.
The next section gets pretty monotonous. It is an old forest road that rolls and twists and turns and everything looks the same. There is a long, steep climb near the beginning of this section, but the run starts to get fairly blurry at this point. There are a couple more bridge crossings and a nice section where you leave the old road for awhile and run along a stream on single-track. About two hours from the finish, there is another set of 51 steep stairs to climb, which I always use as an indicator of where I am. Then you are back to more double-track, more steep climbs, interspersed with some sections of single track. About an hour from the end, there are some signs for camping areas, etc., (ignore the mileage signs) and you head down to the river, parallel it for awhile, and then try to get across it safely by climbing up and down some boulders. The last part consists of a very steep climb with a lot of stairs from the bottom of Whitewater Falls to the parking area at the top.
The race is totally self-supported with no opportunities to drop out along the way. Claude’s races are pretty low key, but he always has the runners’ safety as his priority. He has a well-organized system of sweeps to make sure no one is left out on the course and only veterans are permitted to run it. (First-timers can sweep). Although there is no aid along the way, there is plenty to eat and drink at the finish along with a nice t-shirt.