I wasn’t sure about signing up for any races this year. After last year’s DNF at Free To Run in the Berkshires, I realized I had way, way too much happening in my life to fully commit to training for anything. Having our house on the market and all of the stuff that goes along with that (improvements, getting rid of junk, etc) and getting used to working from home 8-6 every day was keeping me busy and maybe I was just a wee bit burnt out on running at the end of last year. I still ran on weekends with Georgia, through the winter, and a bit during the week, but mostly spent it doing yoga and walks with Tom and the dogs.
As Spring came on, I decided I would run a marathon in South Carolina while visiting family just over the border in NC. I signed up for Upstate Ultra’s Altamont Challenge, and started in on the training again. Knowing Altamont had some serious elevation gain, I did some hill training where possible in Rhode Island and then in April ran the race. It was my slowest marathon ever, but I had a great time running up and down the mountain road. The folks from Upstate Ultra and the Greenville running community were all so nice and welcoming. It felt good to be back.
While there, Matthew Hammersmith, the race director, told me about Paris Mountain Ultra, which happens in October. Not knowing if we’d be back, I put it in the back of my mind.
And then we sold the house.
There are whole blog posts I should have written this year about this strange, intense experience. Saying “see you later” to friends and to my 23 year-old daughter was surreal and hard. I had a couple of drafts started, but never found the time to sit down and finish them. Despite missing my daughter, I felt good leaving, knowing she is where she wants to be, with good people in her life.
We have had an amazing summer and fall. Just after the closing, with Tom and Coco in the truck, towing a small u-haul trailer, and me driving the van (with Charlie as co-pilot), we headed south, first stopping off in Glastonbury to see Tom’s family. On the way, we went through Delaware Water Gap, camped a few nights in Pennsylvania’s Caledonia State Park, saw Gettysburg, Antietam, camped in two spots on Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shendoah Valley, and finally ended up in late July at our new Base Camp – Black Dog Farm in Tryon, NC.
Once settled in, we got busy exploring.
One thing about Tryon – it’s pretty far away from the coast, on the western edge of East Coast Standard time – so mornings are dark, even in summer. It can make it hard to get out of bed to run in the morning, especially with a retired person on no work schedule snoozing contentedly beside me. The only consolation of rising before dawn was avoiding the heat of the day, so little by little, we got used to running in the pre-dawn, again.
At first, I thought perhaps I might put an Arizona race on the calendar. Arevaipa Runners puts on races around Phoenix all year long, and since we had plans to visit Arizona some time in the winter, I thought that could help motivate me to keep running. So that set some training in motion. In the hottest part of North Carolina’s summer, we headed to trails within an hour’s drive radius. All of these deserve their own blog posts, but in the interest of time, I’ll list them here with links, so that perhaps one time if you are visiting this way, you can try them yourself.
Mountain biking (which is a great cross-training for trails):
Duncan Park Hub City trail system, Spartanburg SC – great beginner trails to get your mountain biking legs back, on clay, in an urban spot, so bathrooms and services close by.
Pleasant Ridge JFA trail – Greenville, SC – the Upstate SORBA Ladies ride met here Thursday nights through late summer and introduced me to this incredibly fun and fast 6 mile loop. Maintained by SORBA, it features screaming downhills with just enough obstacles to make it interesting but not frustrating for an amateur like me. Good for running, too. They switch the trail direction each month to keep things interesting.
Bent Creek, Pisgah National Forest, Asheville NC – miles of trails from beginner to challenging.
Pink Beds, Pisgah National Forest, Asheville NC – a five mile woods loop, non-technical, in a beautiful spot.
Blue Wall Preserve, Palmetto Trail System, SC – We did two sections: From Lake Lanier, goes straight up Vaughn Gap (chest burner) and is a scream coming down. From Orchard Lake Campground, trail heads along a ridge through pristine woodland. Rarely used trail. Bring Bear spray. You can get some serious solitude miles here.
Green River Gamelands – Start across from Green River Cove tubing. Technical trails along river and rapids, up into the woods. Hunting in Sept – May so summer is best.
Mountains-to-Sea Trail – close to the parkway, limited to foot traffic, this a good trail for getting miles in. Not technical on the parkway portion.
Table Rock State Park, SC– A great place to learn how to fast hike.
We avoided Paris Mountain State Park, although it is used for hiking, trail running and mountain biking, it is about an hour away, and we had so much to explore that was closer. As you can probably guess by this blog post (after a year of no posting) that we’ve been busy.
By September, I learned we would be here a little longer than we thought, and gave Paris Mountain ultra a second look. I decided I would sign up for the 50K. Since we are leaving so late to go on the road, I thought it would not allow for a consistent training schedule, so I might as well put all the summer training to good use. I knew from reading about it that the Paris Mountain Ultra, in its third year, promised some good climbing and challenging trail. Tom signed up for the half marathon, and suddenly our training developed more focus. I had a month and a half to get into “local trail” shape.
As October 22nd approached, I felt pretty good. All of our runs had gone really well, including a 20 miler going up over Howard Gap into Saluda and down Pearson’s Falls Road, an epic half day in the hot sun. My legs felt strong. I had a bit of the mojo back I feel was lost last year. Although I am not racing as much, these training runs and rides and hikes had reminded me what I love about being out there. If you have the legs to take you far, you can see some amazing stuff that some people will never see.
My sister and her friend and friend’s daughter decided to volunteer, and knowing she would be there raised my spirits as well. Trail running is pretty boring to watch until your runner comes across the finish line, so I’ve rarely had family watch me race. Nancy, Ted and Mia were put to work immediately on making chili, and were there when we turned up at 6:30 a.m. It was a balmy 50 degrees, and I was ready for a long day on the trails. From looking at the previous year’s times, I was banking on about eight and a half hours on trail. My best 50K time is 6:30, on flattish trail, but I knew with the elevation gain my time would be much longer. Matt gave a pre-race meeting in the picnic shelter, where a roaring fire in the rustic fireplace kept the runners warm before starting. I tried to pay attention to most of it, but I figured I would probably get lost at some point (amazingly, I did not. First race ever where I did not get lost!)
At 7:28 we lined up on the road adjacent to the picnic shelter start-finish line, and promptly started at 7:30. I stayed near the back and settled in to a nice me-pace. That’s me with the plaid armbands.
The trail climbed up to an old waterworks feature, and then circled a lake on flattish trail for a few miles before crossing the park road and going over what I nicknamed “Rootsville” for a half mile, and then began its ascent up the mountain. Knowing I would climb this two more times today kept my pace tame. I fast-hiked, quickly getting dusted by a group of three guys ahead. I could hear a few people behind me, but for much of this part, I was alone.
The water is very low now, as it has been dry. After crossing a dry stream, the trail takes one more push before the split. 50Kers go left. I took a deep breath, a swig of water, and then banged a left, immediately encountering faster runners having completed the firetower loop coming back the other way. We waved enthusiastically at each other, and I pressed on along the ridge, this trail slightly uphill and quite scenic. At the remains of the old firetower, I turned to the person I had heard breathing behind me and introduced myself. Kasey was also from North Carolina, a Physical Therapist, and just my pace. We ran together as the trail began to descend the other side of the mountain – a smooth, flowy few miles that were pure heaven. After about 20 minutes, we were joined by another woman, Joann, and the three of us made our way up to the second lake. Joann had been on the trail a few weeks prior, and was wearing a GPS, so was able to keep us posted about when we would hit the first aid station at 8 miles. But first, we had some more ascending to do. It was great running with these two women. We kept busy telling each other our life stories – and of course, I have to be careful with being too distracted, because that’s when I usually fall. Surely enough, just before the first aid station, on a gnarly downhill, I took a superman style flight after hitting a root with my shoe. A moment in the air, followed by a thud in the leaves and dirt. It was comically loud. I did the usual bout of foul-mouthed swearing, sat up and took note of the dirt-covered, quickly-reddening left knee. All my parts moved fine, I was just a little sore. I got up, dusted off, and we gingerly headed down the trail. After awhile, I forgot all about it and we ran along swiftly. Another tough little climb took us up to the first aid station.
The first aid station was the longest I’d “raced” before an aid station appeared, ever. Not that we were exactly lightening fast, but in those eight miles, I’d polished off my two bottles of water. The aid station was unmanned, and featured, among the usual pretzels and bars, oddly, unopened packets of Oodles of Noodles. I wonder if that’s an ultra thing I don’t know about? Crunch down on uncooked noodles? Suck the salt out of the seasoning packets? We had a good laugh over that one.
After that, the trail descended slowly back down to the lake for several miles, and circled back through the start/finish. There was my sister! I gave her a big hug and she took note of my knee, asking if I wanted to clean it up. I figured it was better to leave it, as the blood had dried at that point and the dirt was sort of a band-aid, right? They told me there had been a mile kids’ race and that they had enjoyed volunteering but they would be going. I thanked them for being there and said goodbye before heading out on loop 2 with Kacey and Joann.
The second loop was a little slower on the uphills. It was warmer, now, and we three were tired, but our spirits were still high. Knowing we had another (albeit shorter) loop to complete after this one, we kept the pace sensible (read: a lot of walking.) Kacey’s IT band was starting to bother her after the firetower. I was rearing to go after the downhill started, feeling that feeling I get on the mountain bike and enthused about the upcoming flowy downhill. At the second lake, we took a group photo, and pressed on to the next climb. I got behind Kacey and Joann and just followed their feet as best as I could. Strong women! Kacey had a bad headache as well as the IT band. At the aid station, the water cask was nearly empty. I filled up on tailwind and we made note to tell them down below that the water was nearly out. I was getting close to that bonky feeling, until Kacey gave me one of her gels – a brand I can not recall, the flavor something like watermelon lime cherry cold medicine. It was awful but it did the trick. I came back from the dead, my feet no longer brushing rocks and roots. In my newly energized state, I started in on another distracting story when BAM! Down I went for fall number two of the day. Again, on a downhill, this time on rocky trail, my left knee and leg got scraped up a little more. Frustrated, I got up and we resumed our trail. At this point, Kacey’s IT band was screaming and she bade us go ahead. Joann took the lead and I followed her down the trail, past the lake and into the start/finish once more.
One thing about loops – it’s easier to feel done with the day when people are sitting around on lawn chairs and the car is invitingly nearby. I felt done. We no longer had Kacey with us and I wasn’t sure she’d do a third loop when she eventually came in. I ate some chips, refueled, and visited the ladies’ room. Joann was heading back out. A volunteer with a green ball cap eyed me and my bloody leg and asked if I had everything I needed for the third loop. “Hm, I’m considering stopping” I replied. He said, “No, no, this loop is much shorter, it’s much easier. No worries. Just go.” I thought that if I thought more about it, I wouldn’t go. Joann was leaving. I sucked it up and went with her. (Note: Kacey did indeed come in from the second loop and then went on to the third loop, to finish the day, even with a messed up IT band. Now that’s badass.)
That third climb sucked, but knowing it was the last one, I kept sane by remembering that at the top, I would be going right instead of left, onto the shorter trail. Joann led the way. I spent this last climb noticing all the little things I hadn’t noticed on the first pass. I felt better than the second climb. At the top, we were overjoyed that we finally got to take the right turn, and it led to a really lovely doubletrack trail, slightly downhill, that was pure bliss after the climb. We had a good flow going. While I was mentally done for the day, this was the perfect time to throw this section in – just easy enough to not challenge a tired body – just fast enough to feel fast after 26 miles of running/hiking. Joann kept me entertained with stories about her work, about South Carolina history, and her family. I took the front for awhile and just listened to her. At the bottom, we met back up with the lake trail and made our way in. On our second pass through, we had met a group of runners who had stopped for an elderly hiker who had fallen and broken an arm. I wondered whether she had gotten out okay as I passed the same spot on the way in to the finish line. I couldn’t believe I still felt as well as I did after 32 odd miles and we picked up the pace in the last mile. Up the hill we went, around the bend, and in to the finish. 8 hours, fifty two minutes. Tom was there to cheer me in – he had done his half in a little over 2 hours, 2nd fastest in his age group. The volunteers (awesome, every one of them) encouraged water and food. Joann and I talked a little more, we waited some to see if Kacey would come in, and then I finally sat for a bit. Another 50K done; another adventure in the upstate SC area (who knew there were so many beautiful trails here?), and a great day meeting new friends on the trails.
Now that that is in the books, I am ready to hit the road in a couple of weeks and see what new trails we might see in the deep south as we slowly make our way west. It was great to be made to feel so welcome by Matt and his friends at Upstate Ultras and SCUM Runners. We will carry the SCUM runner bumper sticker proudly on our van.