Saturday, April 27, 2013

Leatherwood Mountains 50 Miler

Pics from the Leatherwood Facebook Page

The basics:  The inaugural Leatherwood Mountains 50 mile run was held in conjunction with a  50K and 10 miler.  It was located in the countryside outside Lenoir, NC at the Leatherwood Mountains Resort, a horse-oriented vacation resort with mountain cabins and miles of riding trails.  It was mainly on these trails that the race was held.  Mark Connolly and Tim Worden were the race directors and did a nice job organizing it.

The course layout:  The 50 mile runners ran three loops, each color-coded.  The first loop was 25 miles, the second 15 and the third 10.  Each loop started and ended at the start/finish area which made it convenient to have a drop bag/cooler waiting for you.

The terrain:  Mainly single-track, much of it fairly technical. with some gravel road and pavement sections. Relentless steep, but relatively short, climbs and descents.  The trails at times were heavily covered in leaves, disguising what was underneath. There was a lot of mud because of the rainstorms the day before and that, combined with some stream crossings meant wet feet most of the day.  Some of the super-steep descents were really slick and many runners had a nice coating of mud on their backsides. If the Garmin data on the website is accurate, you get over 13,000 feet of gain.  (For comparison, the Mountain Masochist has 9,000 feet). 

The aid:  The aid stations seemed to be 5-8 miles apart (guesstimating).  They had everything I could have wanted:  potatoes with salt, sweets, chips, pretzels, gels, coke, chicken broth, BACON and PBR (although I passed on the latter).  The volunteers were super helpful and friendly.

Highlights of the course Pretty mountain views and cool breezes up high.  Passing a lot of very nice cabins.  A long paved/gravel road section that winds through farmland, reminiscent of Old Dominion.

Logistics:  Cabins were available to rent on site and it was a great location for a family to come and hang out, with a restaurant on site.  (I stayed in Lenoir, which was about 30 minutes away.)  Packet pickup and check in was well organized and I had a nice women's cut technical shirt already tucked in my bag.  You were allowed a drop bag at the Rawhide aid station, which you passed through several times, but I just went with leaving a box at the start/finish.

Race organization:  Excellent, despite first year glitches. It's obvious the race directors wanted everyone to have a great time and put a lot of time and effort into it. I have no doubt everything will be fine-tuned next year.

The 'I run for swag' factor:  Socks, sticker, tech-t-shirt in a woman's cut and a pint glass.

My race:  This was the first time my knee felt good going into a race and I think I have built up a solid base in training.  I feel strong, but slow. 

The race started well.  The mile or so of flat pavement in the beginning helped me get my breathing under control and once we hit the first steep gravel road climb, I felt good power-hiking and was able to pass many runners.  My legs were turning over good on the steep technical downhills, although I was trying to be as cautious as possible in the deep leaves.  I was able to stay upright on the slick mud, although I did a lot of twisting and turning.

As the miles wore on, the fact that I still don't have as much agility in my "bad" leg slowed me down, but that's a minor issue I can fix.  All day long, I felt relatively good and I think I was moving steadily on all the hills, although I am still not pushing out of my comfort zone.  My knee started to feel achy and stiff about three hours in, but no actual pain.

Despite feeling good physically, I did have some bad times mentally.  The course marking were confusing (which the race directors will be adjusting next year) and as a result, runners were taking wrong turns onto the 50K course or getting in some bonus miles.  Although I am quite sure I stayed on course, there were runners who were behind me that ended up in front and some in front that ended up in back.  Also, the 50K started an hour after the 50 mile, meaning there were a lot of people out on the course who were passing me.

After the initial 25 mile loop, I began to feel like I was way in the back, judging from all the people ahead of me on out and backs and how alone I was at other times.  This was frustrating, because I felt like I was moving well.  I bent Dan Hartley's ear on the last ten mile loop with my frustration and conviction that we were alone at the back of the pack.  He assured me we were somewhere in the middle and it turns out he was right (4th female, 37 out of 77 starters, 12 hours 30 minutes).

One of the best parts of my race was on that last ten mile loop, trying to keep up with Dan on a steep, technical downhill.  For the first time since my surgery, I flew down the mountain like I used to.  With 45 miles under my belt, my knee felt just fine.

One week later my knee has not swelled and there has been minimal pain. Maybe, finally, I have balanced out my legs and found a shoe (Brooks Glycerins) that make my knee happy. My goal to this point has been to just get my knee back to normal.  After the Georgia Death Race and this race, I feel like I can now focus on getting back to being the runner I used to be.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Boston Reflections

I learned about the explosions at the Boston Marathon on my way to run on the Appalachain Trail after work.  It had happened less than an hour before, so details were still sketchy, but I did know that  people had died at the finish line area.  My thoughts went immediately to my friends and the members of my Brooks family who were running Boston.  But then I started thinking about all the family members and children who wait excitedly for their runner at the finish.  By the time I hit the ridgeline and started  downhill, my throat had closed up and I was hyperventilating.  All weekend there had been so much excitement among runners about the race that they had trained so hard for and then to have it end in such tragedy.

 I stopped until I could breathe again and looked around, appreciating my solitude and the relative safety of these mountains and woods.  But then I had a reality check.  The suspect in my first murder scene as a police officer had fled to Pennsylvania and killed two hikers on the AT.  Less than a mile from where I was standing, Gary Hilton had dumped the body of John Bryant, an elderly hiker he had killed near Brevard.  About two miles away, Alan and I had the enounter with the crazy guy in the van at the trailhead, who acted like he had a gun.  Two miles in the other direction, I had an unsettling encounter with a hiker who may have been Eric Rudolph, the Olympic bomber, when he first went on the run. A friend of mine had a violent enounter while running the AT.  This trail and these mountains are no more safe than anywhere else.  But as I continued to look around, I still found a sense of  peace that only these mountains bring me.  As I ran, three older through-hikers, obviously enjoying their day, blissfully unaware of what was happening in the world, stepped aside so I could pass by.  They were delighted to learn that they only had a short distance left to the road  and thanked me so I could continue on my "gallop".  "Don't take this the wrong way," one of them said as I left, "but you smell good."  

What a great place this trail is.  Moments that make me smile sure do outweigh the ones that make me sad.  This world is such a place, too.  

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Snow Runs

We didn't get much snow this winter until March and the official start of spring was ushered in by three days of it. Earlier in the month, the DoubleTop 100 in Northern Georgia had to be halted mid-race because of the dangerous snowy road conditions.  Alan and I were supposed to sweep the night section and I was pretty disappointed that I would not get to.  So, instead of heading to Georgia, we headed to Standing Indian and did a 28 mile snow run that ended at midnight, fulfilling any need I had to run in a frigid blowing snowstorm for awhile.  Well, at least three weeks.  Here's some pics from that run:

Two weeks ago I was on spring break and it snowed for three days.   On Monday, I did an 8-mile run to Siler's Bald on the AT and back and found a few inches of snow.  Usually, in weather like that (strong winds, low 20's and snowing), I have complete solitude on the trail.  But it is through-hiker season here and I shared the trail with 24 of them on that four mile stretch of trail.  Several of them were heading back down the mountain, unprepared for the weather.  I eventually ended up in front, alone, and in an area sheltered from the wind just below the bald, I found a winter wonderland:

The next day, I messaged Alan to see if he knew where a lot of snow was.  He didn't but offered to take me up to Wayah Bald, one of the high points in the Southern Nantahalas so I could run back "down" to Franklin on the Bartram Trail (there is a lot of steep uphill on that downhill run).  I took him up on the offer and a couple of hours later, he dropped me off at Sawmill Gap, a remote trailhead on a snow-covered forest road.  There were three or four inches on the road and more on the ground. Everything was white and beautiful, not only from the snow, but from a heavy coating of rime ice.  I hopped out of the truck, he drove off and as I rounded the corner to get on the trail, I discovered that there was a lot more snow than I had imagined.  I was expecting a few inches, not a foot or more.  After Alan drove away and I discovered the amount of snow I would be post-holing through, I thought that maybe this wasn't a really good idea after all.  But then I remembered that this was Alan's idea and if I died of hypothermia, Tony could be mad at him instead of me.

The first few hundred yards were beautiful with the deep powdery snow, the solid white trees, the silence except for the strong, steady wind and a very real sense of being alone, far away from everything.

Then, the going got pretty tough.  There was probably only about 8" in sheltered areas where there was no wind, but there wasn't many of those areas on the ridge line.  The strong winds had piled up 24"-30" drifts for much of the two miles between Sawmill Gap and the intersection with the AT.  It was slow going pushing through the drifts, especially on the uphills, but it was well-worth it. I had a sense of wonderment, coupled with a strong sense of caution.  It was 22 degrees when I got out of the truck and the wind was blowing hard.  I was dressed warmly enough and carried some extra layers, but it would be awhile before anyone could get to me, even if they knew to come get me.  So, while enjoying the sublime beauty, I moved slowly enough to be careful, but fast enough not to be caught in the dark before reaching Franklin 16 miles away.

Right before the intersection with the AT, there was a spot sheltered from the wind where the snow had covered everything:

Once on the AT, about six hikers had already pushed through the snow that day, so the going was easier for the next four miles or so.  Then it was back on the Bartram, where the newest obstacle was snow laden rhododendron blocking the trail.  Again, slow going as I stopped to shake them off so I could pass.

As the elevation dropped, so did the snow depth until I got to the area where I had taken pictures of the bear prints and large cat prints in the snow a few weeks before.

That area is exposed to the wind and once again I was back in deep drifts.  This time, though, it was also a very steep downhill, with the consequence of the snow packing up my legs under my pants as I post-holed down the slope. Eventually, the snow became spottier and I was relieved that I could move faster, more safely, but at the same time I was disappointed that the adventure was coming to an end.

I have never taken for granted my ability to get out into the mountains and run, but runs like these just remind me of how lucky I am to have these epic adventures.