Sunday, October 18, 2015

If I Only Had Twenty More Miles. The Naturalist 50K

Welcome back, said the Bartram this past weekend. It had been awhile since I had run any on the trail; sometime last winter. I usually avoid it during the summer because it gets overgrown, especially
with blackberries and poison ivy. During Cross Country season, my team will go there from time to time, but ironically, we had only been there once, the day before I was to run a race on it. I gave them a choice of which trail to run that afternoon and they chose the Bartram. So much for any sort of rest or tapering.

Not that I had anything to taper from. After Zion 100, I once again dealt with my parasite troubles off and on and I chose to kind of do a reset during the summer. I started running very slowly, at my MAF heart rate, and since I was so slow, I didn’t get very far on any long runs. When I did try to run long, for some reason the air quality really kicked in my asthma this year and I would just feel very out of shape (when in reality I wasn’t getting oxygen). And then once school started, between teaching and coaching, I hadn’t had much time for my own running and certainly hadn’t considered signing up for any races.

A while back, I had met with Cory and Rob from Outdoor 76, who had dreamt up a race that would start at their shop on Main Street, Franklin and end at the top of Wayah Bald, which you can see from their shop, at an elevation of 5.342 feet. The race would be a 25K and involve, with all the ups and downs on the route, an elevation gain of 7,000 feet. I thought it was a great idea, but imagined a lot of carnage. That stretch of the Bartram is one brutal climb after another and it plays mental games with you as the climbs and descents seem never-ending. But of course, the question that came immediately to my mind is, “What about those of us who would want to turn around and run back down for a 50K?” I am not sure they really thought anyone would want to turn around and do that again, but they took a gamble and sure enough, there are enough crazy people around who would want to do that.

Several months later, The NaturalistEpic 25K/50K inaugural race was held. I was supposed to be out of town for the race and wasn’t too upset over not being able to run it (see paragraph 2), but I wanted to be around to see how it went. It was going to be the first large-scale ultra in Franklin and it was going to be, as the name said, epic. Then a week before the race, I learned that I was actually going to be in town and could run it. I hesitated before signing up (see paragraph 2), but then figured I could probably hit the cutoffs and it would be fun to be involved, even if I ended up curled into a ball beside the trail.

I picked up my race packet the night before at the shop and got a really nice North Face race shirt, a Salomon hat and shoe bag, a ticket for a free beer and other assorted sundries. The race director gave me drop bags to use, which he labeled for me. A full-service ultra. 

Race swag plus some other cool stuff that came in the mail
The next morning, unfortunately, it was raining and would rain all day long. It was great weather to run in, but the beautiful views from Wayah would disappear in the fog and all those volunteers would be out in the nasty weather. And there were a lot of volunteers, not only at aid stations, but at all trail intersections and even some out roaming the trail, making sure everyone was okay.

But back to the race. Sixty-some people showed up to run both races and gathered on Main Street for the typically low-key ultra-start. Now, I haven’t run a 50K in a few years. I forgot that the start of a 25K/50K is nothing like a 100 miler. When Cory said go, all the runners were off, running, what seemed to me, a 5K race pace on the initial 3.5 mile road run. I don’t think I could have hung with them, even if I wanted to, so I hung out with the bikers in the back who were acting as sweeps, until I finally started passing some people who had figured out that they started out too fast. 

Blood Log
The first aid station marks the start of the single-track and was fully loaded with food, drink, volunteers, and people cheering runners on. I was glad to be off the road and as soon as I stepped onto the trail, I felt the “welcome back.” This is what I knew. This is the section that I run in the winter at least once a week and when I was rehabbing my ACL, before I was allowed to run, I would come here every day, working on strength and speed.

After an initial, “Hello, look at this beautiful waterfall,” the trail climbs steadily for a mile or so, then becomes more runnable for another mile before it starts an extremely steep uphill section, which ends at Blood Log. Okay, I am the only one who knows it as Blood Log. Others probably have a legit name, like Wilkes Knob. But one winter day, I was running to Wayah, experimenting with a set of brand-new trekking poles I had won at Merrill’s Mile. When I hit the top of the climb, I collapsed them so I could run downhill. But I cut my finger pretty deeply in the process and bled profusely all over that log as I fumbled for a band aid in of my pack. The band-aid didn’t do much of anything, but right around the corner I found two hunters sitting on a log, one of whom gave me a handkerchief to wrap around it so I could continue on with my run.

But back to the trail. The trail gives you a bit of a break with a nice downhill, but then heads steeply back uphill, then steeply back downhill, then steeply back uphill… you get the picture. This is abnormal steepness, hand pushing on quads type of steepness, no switchback steepness. The downhills, at least for me, are not much faster than the uphills, because they tend to be more of a controlled slide. And it was raining. All day long. Normally this section is also overgrown, turkeys make huge piles of leaves in the trail from scratching the banks and there are jumbles of tree limbs to crawl through. But this time, the trail was immaculate. The brush was cut way back away from the trail and the race directors had even installed nice mile markers all along the way. I joked with them that I wanted my money back because I actually had to step over a little log at one point.

Photo by Mark Zemmin

The next aid station, at 9 miles, is at Harrison Gap. There I was greeted by running buddies working the aid station along with my husband, Tony. The aid station was fully stocked with lots of goodies, but I just grabbed part of a banana and continued onto the next section, which would end at Wayah, at mile 15. For a description of the next couple of miles, just refer to the previous paragraph. Eventually the trail just heads up, with no more of the downhill nonsense, until it intersects with a forest road leading to Wayah Bald. You spend a little time on the road, then hit the turn-around aid station and retrace your steps. Up to this point, I had felt okay but was getting pretty cold from the rain and my quads felt almost dead. I had a dry shirt in my drop bag, which improved the cold issue and headed back down, hoping the dead quad issue would resolve itself somehow. Again, it was raining (I may have mentioned that), so no one knew that there was a beautiful view from that aid station.

What the view from Wayah normally looks like

The downhills on the way back were a little more tricky. Because it had rained all day there were numerous slick spots, but I managed to stay upright. That was my goal for the long downhill section- to not break, pull or tear anything. Once we got back to the uphill/downhill miles, my legs seemed to remember what it is they are good at. Steady climbing. I had lots of energy and moved a lot better than I had on the way out. I figured out when I got back to the Harrison Gap aid station, that I was the last 50K’er, that the people I had passed on the way out were running the 25K. I was okay with that. (See paragraph. 2.) Okay, so I wasn’t really okay with that.

After Harrison Gap, more uphills were ahead. But I had a lot of energy and continued to move really well. I was enjoying the trail, even in the rain, and the fall leaves on the ground were beautiful. As I continued to push hard, I passed one person, then two, then three. (Sigh. If I only had twenty more miles left in the race, I think I could have passed several more.) I flew down the final section of trail, which I know like the back of my hand, trying to stay out of last place.

But here I was at the last aid station with the road section ahead. The first part of the road section is very rural, with little traffic. Then you hit a very busy section, on a blind hill and curve with no place to run besides in the road. In the morning, there had been a law enforcement escort, but with runners so spread out, it wasn’t an option on the way back. I had been pretty worried about this section, but the race directors had thought this through, along with every other aspect of the race. As I hit the main road, they had vehicles waiting to follow you with hazard lights until you got safely onto the sidewalk on the other side of the hill. I am not sure how local townsfolk felt about the hold-up, but all runners got back safe and sound.

As an added bonus, one of my senior cross country runners had left her soccer game to come run this final section with me, which was a very nice distraction and a fun way to finish the race. I figured I would be passed again before I hit the finish, but there was no on in sight. I guess those last two miles of the trail I could fly down were my home-field advantage.

Photo from Macon County News, Brittney Raby
The finish was downtown, where we started, and waiting was Tony and the winner of the race, my former student, runner, and adventure race partner, Daniel Hamilton, who finished the race about the time I turned around on Wayah. He’s that fast, and I was that slow! One of my former runners, Allison Jameson finished 4th in the 25K, one of my runner’s moms, Carolyn Tait, finished 3rd in the 50K, RD Cory McCall was a former Franklin runner, so there was a nice XC theme going on. Out on the course, I saw former students and current students, both volunteering and running the race.

And there was great after-party going on. A band was playing under a tent (it was still raining), people were everywhere enjoying the afternoon (and the beer). There was lasagna for the runners and volunteers and a chili cook off had been held earlier. I think all of Franklin’s outdoor community had been involved in one way or another and most of them had gathered here as the race winded down.
I was really glad I was able to run the race and despite some prejudice for my hometown course, I think it was truly one of the best organized races I have run. I felt very taken care of, from start to finish. Register early for this beautiful and challenging race, because it will sell out next year!