A fifty mile race calls for a super long race recap right? Well here it goes:
I’ve never had such an adventure getting to a start line. I have very vivid dreams and many of my pre-race dreams involve forgetting my bike at the start of a triathlon or having busted goggles, others involve being late. Never had I had a nightmare almost come true. Lately Mike and I have been rolling with the idea of camping the night before a race because it means it’s cheaper, we can bring our pup, and it ends up being close to trail race starts and or finishes. This time it backfired.
We camped at Pilot Mountain NC state campground, 20 minutes from the start and easy for Mike and Tucker to spectate from since the course went all through the park trails. The race started at 6am so we planned to leave around 5:10am to give us some extra time to leave the campgrounds and get to the start. Well, at about 5:13am we hit our first obstacle- the gate was locked, we were locked into the campground. I know that campgrounds have hours, but I figured that since the race had an aid station in the campground and that there were probably several participants staying there, that the rangers would not lock the gate or would open it early. I got out and checked the lock, then hopped back in the car to see if the park office was open or if the campground attendant was up and had the ability to open the gate. On our way back we saw a truck driving towards us. We flagged them down, and it turned out that the driver was a fellow 50 mile ultrarunner with a friend in the passenger seat. I let them know that the gate was locked and that we were going to find someone to talk to. At least I wasn’t the only one locked in! The office was locked and dark, and the campground attendant basically told me I was shit out of luck, that the Park Rangers open the gate at 7am.
Back near the gate we updated the guys in the truck who had waited for us and we started looking through our emails for the race director’s number. No number, but we sent emails. It was now after 5:30am. I started thinking through maybe being able to drop down to the 50k which started later in the morning, I even contemplated running to the start. I honestly wasn’t sure what else I could do. The guys went down to the gate to look if there was any way to get around the gate and fences. All of a sudden they were hollering at me and I saw a van with a trailer on the other side of the gate. It was a course marshal and he could give us a ride to the start! I grabbed my hydration vest, put on my gaiters and shoes, and hopped into the course marshal’s van. While Steven (the other runner) was hopping into the van, a truck pulled up, it was the Park Ranger to unlock the gate! The course marshal said he’d call the race director and let him know what had happened and that we were on our way- we gave him our bib numbers.
Mike had already turned around and driven back to the campground but Steven’s friend was still there so we hopped into Steven’s truck and drove very quickly, but safely, to the starting point. We made it at 5:57am! No time to worry about the race itself, I jumped into the crowd at the very end of the RD’s speech about the course, and he led us to the trail head. I asked someone if there was anyone to check in with and was told to tell the guy who was speaking. The race started and as I passed by the RD, I told him that I was one of the two runners locked into the Pilot Mountain campgrounds and that we had made it! I literally checked in with the race director while running over the “starting line.” I did remember to start my garmin, but it didn’t really hit me that I was running a 50 mile race until I was actively running in a 50 mile race.
My heart rate higher than it should be, I tried to settle into a very conservative pace to start. My main goal for the race was to finish it, being my first 50 mile race. My second goal was to go sub 12 hours, meaning about an under 14:25 min mile pace including pauses/rest at aid stations. The first 15 miles were up, around, and over Pilot Mountain, the middle 20 miles were a mix of trail and roads on the Sauratown Trail system which connected to the last 15 miles, within the mountainous Hanging Rock State Park. Segmenting this race into three distinct pieces helped to make the 50 miles seem less daunting.
Less than two miles into the race I fell into stride with a very talkative, muscular, military looking guy and his friend, a younger, bearded and quieter guy. The talkative one made a joke about how he usually runs to enjoy the silence and alone-ness. I made fast friends with JR and Cole from then on and we ended up running for at least 30 miles together!
JR, an active Marine who lives on the coast of NC, had run two 50 milers before, both were in 12/24 hour races and during one of them he had a stress fracture in his foot. Cole, a student at James Madison University in VA, was a longtime friend of JR’s and had only run on 50k before and zero ‘traditional’ marathons. They ended up being quite the running companions, fun company, and were not aiming for any time goals, just to finish safely. For most of the next 30 miles, JR and I took turns leading the group, and deciding together when we wanted to walk/power-hike the uphills and when to run.
After six miles, much of it in the dark, we hit the first aid station and I was able to put away my headlamp and throw on my hat (my Ironman Chattanooga Finisher’s Hat, which I ended up getting many compliments on from people who knew how brutal that 2016 race was!) I re-filled my soft-flask (I also had a bladder in my hydration vest that was still pretty full) and ate a couple bites of a larabar. This aid station was the start of the 50k so it was crowded prior to their start, luckily they weren’t going to follow the same route as us (so they weren’t going to run over us) because we were headed up and over Pilot Mountain while they went around it.
We started to really climb after this aid station with six more miles till the next one which was at the parking lot at the top of the mountain. We climbed up Pilot Mountain surrounded by fog, getting in a power hiking groove up the rocks and roots on the steepest parts of the climb. There were some climbers setting up their routes at the base of some of the walls on Pilot Mountain who we passed by. We circled around the summit, not getting in much of a view due to the fog, then made it to the parking lot where I took advantage of the real restroom and an applesauce cup while JR taped up his arm where his stitches from a shoulder surgery were bothering him. We got to run downhill for the next 3 miles to the base of the mountain, near where I had camped the night before, and where Mike and Tucker were planning to meet me. Sure enough, a few pretty quick miles later, I got the welcome sight of my pup eagerly leaping towards me, followed by lots of licking. I grabbed a small bag trail mix from Mike and then JR, Cole and I left the state park for a short stretch of road before getting onto the Sauratown trail system. We were through the first section of the race!
The Sauratown Trail system consists of 15 sections of bridal trail/gravel trails, criss-crossing the roads, that ultimately connect Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock state parks. We were not allowed to access two sections of the trail and were re-routed on the road for those sections. Because of all the road crossings, there were ample aid stations in this section and places for Mike and Tucker to hang out and see me. At one of the aid stations I discovered how wonderful peanut butter rice crispie treats are, at another, Tucker tried to take bacon out of someone’s hand, got pulled backwards on his leash and almost did a backflip in the process.
I won’t say this section was boring, but it didn’t have the views or varied terrain (other than road/gravel/trail) that makes the mountainous running/hiking so fun. JR, Cole and I still tried to take it easy on the uphills and run the flats and downhills. I was hoping we would make the bag drop aid station at mile 27.6 before the 6 hour mark, but we were a little behind that due to some extended aid station stays where Cole needed to stretch out a bit. I did use our extended stay at the bag drop to change my soggy socks after a few (like a dozen or so) creek crossings. On one memorable section we played an alphabet game to pass the time, naming different movies that started with the letters A-Z and then moving on to actors/actresses. It was kind of incredible how hard my brain had to work to play this simple game while running.
When the three of us got to the aid station at mile 31.6 (the bacon station,) I had arrived a few minutes before the other two because they had started to walk a section that I had continued to run. JR told me to go on ahead if I wanted to run my own race and that he would wait on Cole, who was hurting. I appreciated getting to run with them for so many miles, but was happy he said this so I didn’t have to feel like I was ditching them. The last re-routed section of road went up to the Hanging Rock park, and it was not shaded and getting pretty warm out. I passed a couple of runners on this section and made sure to stay hydrated. When I got to the aid station at mile 36.5, I saw my car but not Tucker and Mike. Apparently, I did the section quite a bit faster than the previous ones so he wasn’t expecting me yet! I had officially run farther than I ever had before, and I had made it to the last section of the race, Hanging Rock state park. I hopped onto the Mountains to Sea trail to conquer another mountain and the last half-marathon of the race.
I cruised up a section of the Mountains to Sea trail in run/hike fashion, passing by many hikers as I worked my way up to one of the summits, Moore’s Knob. Peoples’ reactions were mixed, some cheering me on, others kind of baffled why I was booking it up over the rocks and roots, and one super helpful guy hiking with his wife and daughter told me that I had a last little bit of uphill before I would come upon a nice traverse that is flat and runnable. I thanked him enthusiastically as I moved up the trail, focusing on my feet and my breathing, plus the course markings.
Not stopping to enjoy the top, I started going downhill, down a gajillion steps! I saw a sign that said 2.8 miles to the campgrounds where I assumed my next aid station was, and I saw an endless series of steps below me. Ordinarily these would not be a big deal, but nearly 40 miles into a race… well, lets just say I didn’t trust my feet to prevent me from falling flat on my face so I took it easy. I swear that there were 2 miles of steps to go down and I couldn’t have been happier to hit a flat or an uphill, my quads felt like they were bulging out of my shorts. Upon arriving at the aid station at the campground, the woman womanning the station said “congratulations! You’re at mile 41.7!” Until she said this I wasn’t sure how far into the race I was/how much I had left because my watch’s GPS was definitely off (I think at this point it said 36 miles). She also asked me what I thought of that last section, I think I omitted any profanity and just said “it got old really quickly.” They assured me that I was through the hardest part of the race and literally had mostly downhill ahead of me (but not those steps again.) I had a potato dipped in salt, refilled my softflask once again, thanked them profusely and headed out for my last 8 miles and change!
The course looped through several different trails at Hanging Rock, and it was more and more crowded the closer I got to the visitor’s center. Technically I didn’t ever get to the summit of Hanging Rock (although I did two weeks after the race) but I swear I covered every other inch of trail! I passed a few 50k runners once I got back on the shared course (the 50 miler course diverged not far into the park to go up to Moore’s Knob,) and was feeling surprisingly decent and still able to run all the flats and downhills. There is something pretty empowering to be 40 plus miles into a race and still blowing past hikers on up and down a mountain!
On a short uphill section to the visitor’s center I saw Tucker and Mike at the top! Power hiking to the top a couple of women who had been chatting asked how long my race was. I told them they don’t want to know, and then I told him 50 miles, with less than 5 miles to go. They said something to the effect of “You go girl!” as I trudged up to get infinite kisses from an overly excited and jumping Tucker and a much gentler hug from Mike. The race director was at this aid station and asked me if I was the one who got locked into the campground that morning. I recapped the story, with Mike’s help, while gobbling up a quarter of a PB&J and some pretzels, happy to still have an appetite. He also asked me about my dirty girl gaiters (which, in addition to my IM Chattanooga hat, garnered me lots of compliments) and how they held up with the creek crossings.
To tell you the truth I wanted to get going, I still had four miles to go and still had to work a little to go under 12 hours (my goal at this point.) I asked where I went next, told Mike I’d see him at the finish and set off on a different trail. This one had more steps, so I gingerly tried to go around many of them and to softly hop down them, to a waterfall. Briefly glancing at the waterfall, I was more interested in the sign pointing towards the Dan River which is where the Green Heron Ale House, and the finish line, was located. This section felt like a rain forest and in the last 1.5 miles I knew I would have 5 more creek crossings. The gnarly roots covered in leaves were more of a hazard to me than the creek sections, this was a part of the course where not paying attention could mean a serious fall or ankle roll. 11 and a half hours into the race at this point, I was ready to be finished! After counting 5 crossings (four of which were really in the last half mile) I was out on the dirt road and saw the family of another runner cheering. I knew the finish was around the corner, I just didn’t know exactly how far the corner was! The end was finally in sight! Fighting back tears, but with a gigantic smile, I crossed the finish line in 11 hours and 55 minutes!
A volunteer put a medal in my hand and all I could think was “holy crap, I just covered 50 miles,” and “my feet hurt” and then the announcer said I had placed in my age group. The photographer grabbed my award, a hat, put it on my head, and put a sign in my hands to take another photo. I know that there were not that many women in the 50 mile race (more in the 50k and the relay) but the age group was for all women under 40, so I was not expecting 3rd place.
Mike lovingly helped me sit down and take off my shoes, gaiters, and another soaking wet pair of socks. My feet looked trashed but it turns out I didn’t even have a serious blister. I shuffled over to a changing area to change clothes before I got too cold as the sun started to set and my body heat dissipated. I then went into the ale house to get my free beer. All they were offering (for the free beer) was Yuengling, but I’m telling you that was the best damn Yuengling I’ve ever had. I ate some rice, salsa, sweet potatoes and potatoes – with lots of salt, fathoming how little food I had actually consumed over the past 12 hours: Pre-race oatmeal, 1.5 larabars, an applesauce cup, small snack bag of pretzels, small bag of pretzels, small bag of potato chips, 3 quarters of PB&Js, a few small squares of PB rice crispy treats, 2 skratch packets of electrolyte mix, and lots of water over the course of 50 miles.
While Mike was packing up the car and I was finishing my beer I saw JR and Cole shuffling towards me from the finish line area. I got up (slowly) from my picnic table and gave them hi-fives and sweaty hugs! I asked Mike to take some photos of us and congratulated them for finishing before needing a headlamp again, which was the goal we had settled on as a group (they finished about 50 minutes after me.) I was so happy that Cole had fought through the pain and had JR to do the race with him.
Bottom line: According to Strava I amassed 7,464 Ft of climbing. I crossed at least 20 streams, and climbed up or down approximately 10,000 stone steps in Hanging Rock State Park while covering 50 miles of all kinds of terrain. Ultimately it was 12 hours of time on my feet that I feel incredibly fortunate to have the ability to do. I was also once again amazed by the awesome-ness of the ultra community- from the race director and aid station volunteers to my fellow runners like JR and Cole- who make this crazy sport worth doing.
I also could not have done this race without Mike (and I guess Tucker to keep him company.) He put up with my weekend long runs and races away from him, camping adventures together, and finally, after this race, driving my exhausted body home while I drank beer and made him stop to get Bojangle’s biscuits. You’re the best!