Something new: Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock 50K race report

I *love* point-to-point trail races. So when a new 50K opened up that wasn’t too far away, I was excited. Some friends signed up, which only made it more enticing. Unfortunately, I’d spent most of the summer nursing what turned out to be a hip labral tear. While getting the uber-fancy fluorescent MRI, I got a cortisone shot, which seemed to settle the pain enough to finish my early fall training. Once I confirmed that it wouldn’t get worse, I signed up for the 50K distance in the inaugural Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock Ultramarathons.

The trails and course were a complete mystery to me, which was exciting. The race organizers promised some crazy tough single-track, but other sections of the website described trails that sounded like Umstead bridle trails. The elevation change wasn’t horrendous, given the mileage. Much of the race was on the Sauratown Trail, part of the NC Mountains-to-Sea Trail that I’d never hiked. It couldn’t possibly be harder than Uwharrie and I figured that any easy sections would be a welcome surprise. What I discovered was that the course offered a little of everything.

There were only 2 hills on the 50K. No problem!

There were only 2 hills on the 50K. No problem!

Will, Joanna and I caravanned up to Winston-Salem, where we hit packet pickup at By Foot Sports in King, NC. It poured rain all afternoon and evening. Later, I found out that some of the 50 milers dropped down to the 50K. Then, J and I hit some local attractions (read: bakeries) before having dinner and spending the night at her mom’s house.

Carb-loading is an important part of race preparation.

Carb-loading is an important part of race preparation, and impossible to resist when the original Krispy Kreme is in Winston-Salem. Thanks Mr. Sta-Puff!

Joanna’s mom, Isabelle, was a hoot. She watched us scamper around, while having the inane stream-of-consciousness back-and-forth that passes for conversation between runners when packing and prepping for a race. When Joanna went upstairs to get something, Isabelle leaned toward me and asked, “How far is this race tomorrow?” When I told her 31 miles, she shook her head in wonder. “And why do you want to do that?” She didn’t say it in an eye-rolling, exasperated way. She genuinely wanted to know.

I fumbled a bit, as I always do trying to explain why I love running long distances on trails. “Well, I love being out in the woods—and the chance to do that for most of a day, and nothing BUT that, traveling by trail on my own two feet for a long distance, flying along and covering ground, and seeing beauty everywhere—makes me so happy,” I explained, inadequately. She nodded. I couldn’t tell if she meant “I understand,” or “ah, there are others like my daughter. Maybe she is not crazy.”

I woke up the next morning at 4:30 and wondered groggily how this was required, since the race didn’t start until 8. We had to catch the shuttle ride to the start no later than 6, though, and it was an hour drive. We hit the road at 5:00. One wrong turn and some backtracking and we were suddenly behind schedule. Then, we were lost. Part of my problem was that our plan to stop to get coffee was flubbed by the fact that not a single convenience store in Stokes County opened until 6:00. I drove on in quiet desperation. I don’t need a lot of coffee, but no coffee guarantees an all-day caffeine headache.

Fortunately, we got a tiny window of cell service just as Will called, and we found the Green Heron Club, the finish for the race. We were the last people to jump on the bus that took us to the start. On the way, I ate my oatmeal and wished for some of the black juice.

We arrived at the start in a parking lot just outside Pilot Mountain at the Grassy Ridge trailhead. There were volunteers checking people in, and one of them kindly shared some of her coffee from her own thermos. Race volunteers are the best!

We are off! Me, Joanna, and Will are all in this picture. Cross the road and hit the trail. It's going to be a great day!

We are off! Can you spot me, Joanna, and Will? Cross the road and hit the trail. It’s going to be a great day!

The race started without fanfare, and I wished my buddies good luck. Grassy Ridge Trail was a supremely runnable trail that skirts the east side of the mountains section of Pilot Mountain State Park. It was easy running and the 80 or so runners spread out to start the day. Fall color was about a week ahead of Raleigh, so the oak-hickory forest was gorgeously aflame with reds, oranges and golds. For a few miles I ran and chatted with Michelle, whose longest race before #PM2HR was a half marathon. Wow, so gutsy! Love it!

It seemed like no time at all before we reached mile 10.5, where our drop bags were. I really didn’t need anything so early! I might have changed socks if I’d packed them; we had our first stream crossings already and my feet were wet. As it turned out, that would have been pointless, as we splashed across small streams many times. I dropped off my arm warmers, stuffed some extra snacks in my pack, and motored on.

The least-fun section paralleled a road and had several crossings, and there was a 2.5 mile stretch on a road, which seemed harder than the trails. There were some jaw-dropping vistas of Hanging Rock to keep us distracted. One of the landowners along the trail wanted to enjoy the opening weekend of hunting season, which was good enough reason for me to stay on the road without fuss. Great reminder that much of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail passes through right-a-ways on private lands, due to the generosity of many landowners. We need to be good stewards and users of the trails.

The morning started cool and foggy but turned warm and humid. I felt really good, and I was having a great race, maybe my best ever—no one passed me after mile 10, and I caught more than a dozen people on the back half, running steadily. This was the first ultra-distance where I raced—not running as hard as I could, because that would be silly, but pushing myself to run at a steady pace, move quickly through aid stations (OMG the RD’s wife made peanut butter rice krispy treats!), and keep my walk breaks short. I had a touch of nausea but a ginger chew seemed to help.

I ran and chatted with three other guys for awhile and one said he was hoping for a 6 hour finish. That sounded crazy, not that I could do the math, but someone else said if that was the case, he’d better move. I was saying I’d be sure to get a PR since it was my first 50K. Someone commented, “that’s surprising, because you look like an ultra-runner.” I laughed—this is what an ultra-runner looks like? A 43 year old mother of two, with an average build, sturdy legs for climbing, and salt and pepper hair? But it was meant as a compliment and I accepted it with pride. Hell yeah I look like an ultra-runner! I joked that we were about to pay for all this nice runnable trail we’d had. And we did, in spades.

Once past the mile 23 aid station, I saw very few runners. We were spread out. I began the tough climb through Hanging Rock State Park. Some extremely rocky trail on the Moore’s Wall and Magnolia Springs Trail, combined with steep climbs, reduced me to a steady hike. Every once in a while the trail would pop out at an overlook with some amazing views. When the going got tough, I’d admire the forest, noticing that the extreme-loving species like Table Mountain pine were there clinging to the cliffs I was climbing.

After the big climb on Hanging Rock, the trail connected to the Hanging Rock summit trail, below the summit. It was disconcerting to have been alone in the woods for over an hour and suddenly share the trail with oodles of hikers and families ambling toward the summit. They seemed surprised, too, to see a runner come flying (well, it felt like flying) down the mountain. “Excuse me! On your left! On your left, please!”

I climbed a short hill to the aid station in the parking lot, panting a little.
“Thanks for volunteering. Is there a bathroom here? What mile is this, anyway?”
“Bathroom is across the parking lot. You’re at mile 27. Fourth female.”
“What, are you serious? Geez, I can’t go to the bathroom now!”
“Well…3rd female is way ahead. I don’t think you’ll catch her.”
“I’m not worried about that! I’m in the old lady division and don’t want to be passed while I’m in a porta potty! I’ll have to chance it!” They laughed, but I was dead serious. I grabbed a handful of chips and headed across the parking lot.

The last section of trail descended through the crowded picnic area and past the waterfalls. Talk about painful. It was steep, rocky, and wet, and my legs were tired and starting to get shaky. It was also crowded, and I called out (politely, I hope) multiple times as I passed that I was finishing a race, hoping that they would not ask where it started. No time to explain!

After the waterfalls, the trail leveled out and it was smooth and beautiful, easy running. In the last mile, there were four creek crossings, which felt refreshing on my tired feet, though I grumbled, “really?”

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What a tired, dirty, sweaty, happy distance runner looks like.

I came out to the Green Heron Club and crossed the finish line. One of the race directors, Jeff, came over to shake my hand and congratulate me on my finish. I was indeed 4th female, 1st masters, with a finish time of 6:15! I was 19th of 72 runners overall, possibly my best overall placing ever. I was thrilled. I didn’t have any time goal, but that far exceeded what I thought was possible.

“How did you like the race? What did you think of the course?” Jeff asked. “It was totally wicked!” He glanced at my face–I beamed and elaborated. “I loved it.”

I loved this race and would do it again in a heartbeat. The course was fantastic, with plenty of challenge, but it was also very runnable. The medals were a cool horseshoe, and I received a nice zippered jacket as my award. The Green Heron Club was the perfect relaxing venue post-race, with places to change (even showers, if you’d brought a bathing suit), a barbeque meal, and draft beer. Many thanks to Trivium Racing for an excellent race!

Les Etoiles

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“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You–only you–will have stars that can laugh! And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This weekend was hard. Two years have not been enough time to ease my sorrow. It was a long day Saturday missing one of my closest friends. Suzie loved the wisdom of Le Petit Prince.

Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: Author interview

[Not to be confused with the Santa interview, below.]
We are incredibly excited for our official book launch on September 22nd, with a kick-off event at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC, at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, September 23rd. Here’s a link to some other events we’ll be doing in the region!
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A cold, windy, rainy, and absolutely beautiful hike on the Overmountain Victory Trail at the end of July.

Steph Jeffries and Tom Wentworth, authors of Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, talk with Carson Rogers about how to get the most out of your hiking experience.

Carson Rogers: You take a holistic approach to the forest, showing readers how to look at the bigger picture of the environment rather than just the hiking path. What made you choose this approach, and why is it important?

Steph Jeffries: When we teach our two-week field course, we jump right in and during that first week, we are relentless—traveling to many stops each day and constantly asking the students what they see and what they think about what they see. Quite honestly, we nearly break them. But in the second week, a funny thing happens. The students gradually assume the lead—making observations, asking questions, probing current hypotheses, speculating. In short, they are thinking like ecologists and it is dawning on them that science is really not about what we already know, but instead about discovery. The transformation in such a short time is incredible. We think that anyone can learn to do this, to see the forest and the trees, so to speak. In doing so, your connection with nature broadens immeasurably, because you have a holistic understanding of why the forest you’re standing in looks the way it does. So many connections are formed that you’ll never look at a forest in the same way, ever again.

CR: What do hikers and outdoorspeople miss when they do not use this approach?

Tom Wentworth: Imagine strolling into one of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe with no understanding of the building’s rich history, no idea about what went into its construction, no concept of its purpose, and no sense of how this cathedral differs from others. You would doubtless be awed by the sensation of standing in that magnificent space, but think how much richer your experience would be if you appreciated its history, construction, purpose, and uniqueness. It’s much the same with forests and other natural communities. You may have a very pleasant experience walking through a forest, but you will have a much deeper connection with and appreciation of the place if you understand how it came to be, what its components are and how they interact, and how it functions. Our approach to natural ecosystems provides that gateway. SJ: I recently started re-reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a hilarious account of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Bryson begins nearly every chapter with his observation that he’s walking among endless trees along an endless trail that all looks the same. I love his story, his perspective in rediscovering America, and his colorful characters, but it’s hard not to think of how much richer his experience would have been if he could see the forest for the endless trees. Our four hikes on the Appalachian Trail are, in fact, very different from one another.

In addition, I think most of us are “destination-oriented”—focused on the trail’s end, the scenic vista, the waterfall. Many of our hikes have points of interest such as these, because we love them too. By using our book, you can become a “journey” person as well, someone who sees something new and exciting around each bend in the trail. We want you to start seeing the forest intimately, instead of a background of green noise.

CR: What makes your “ecological guide” different from other hiking books?

TW: Many other hiking books are focused on the details of a trail as a way to get from point A to point B. This is not a bad thing—we all need to know trail conditions, elevation gain and loss, points of interest, directions that keep us on track (and not lost), and so forth. Indeed, we love and use such trail guides ourselves. However, we offer our readers something entirely different. While some guides will comment briefly on historical events, forest types, or points of particular interest, none offer the holistic, ecological view that we provide. We teach hikers how to read the landscape and to appreciate the ecological components and processes that make these forests what they are today. We feel that this is a unique contribution to the hiking literature.

SJ: To add to what Tom said, what excites me about ecology is its accessibility. Ecological concepts are often intuitive and fun to share. What makes the science challenging is that it requires you to pull together everything you know to solve a puzzle. When you walk into a forest and want to understand what you see, you’d better bring along everything you know about biology, geology, chemistry, physics, geography, and history. The complexity of nature is what makes it so hard to decipher, and at the same time, so fascinating. You really feel like a Renaissance scientist!

CR: How do you envision readers using this guide out on the trail?

TW: First, I believe that readers should consult our book before hitting the trail! The hiker who has previously read the hike’s narrative, its sidebar, and some related sidebars and relevant community descriptions is then prepared for a most rewarding experience. Once on the trail, I would envision the reader pausing occasionally to pull our book from its home in the backpack and then consulting it as a reference. In this way the hiker would be prepared for and could quickly find answers to questions like: What did Steph and Tom say about this waterfall? Why did they say all the trees are small and of similar sizes? Which way did they say to turn at this trail junction? Which natural community is this? Which maple am I seeing? I also imagine and hope that readers might reach the destination summit or overlook, find a comfortable place to sit, and read again the hike’s narrative and sidebar, letting their immediate experience and the book’s content mingle in their minds. Perhaps this last step might even happen later that evening, in front of a campfire or in a cozy chair back home.

CR: How many walks are featured from each included state?

SJ: Well, the bulk of the land area in the southern Appalachians is in North Carolina, so unsurprisingly, we have many hikes there. But there are five hikes each in Georgia and South Carolina, with many hikes nearby in adjacent states. Tennessee hikers also have five hikes to choose from, but several others are just across the state line in North Carolina. While Virginia has only three hikes, they are all near its southern border, and several northern North Carolina hikes are nearby. We feel that the hikes we chose offer the best in the region, while providing good geographic coverage.

CR: How did you manage to narrow down the many possible hikes to just the 30 trails included in your guide? Do you each have a favorite?

SJ: Goodness me, I am still discovering new trails that would have been perfect for the book. It wasn’t easy. On one summer day, I hiked nearly every trail on the western rim of Linville Gorge—including Linville Falls, Pine Gap, Babel Tower, and Wiseman’s View—to choose the best one for the book. (I ate the biggest slice of pie in western North Carolina that night, while icing my knees.) We wanted to represent a broad cross-section of the region and natural communities, of course, as well as varied distance options. Accessibility was also important to us—we wanted to reach the broadest possible audience. There are five trails that are at least partially accessible to those with physical disabilities. Most importantly, each trail we chose has a great story—some are historical, some are mysteries or dramas, and a few even have surprise endings.

If I could transport myself anywhere today, it would be to walk among the ancient giants at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Tomorrow would be different, of course. I think my favorite chapter that I drafted is the Babel Tower Trail because it helped me articulate my thoughts on wilderness.

TW: I’ll add that many, many people offered suggestions of hikes they thought should be included in this book. Certain hikes were mentioned so often that there was never any question that we would include them. In other cases, little-known gems suggested by just one or two friends and colleagues proved to be ideal. As Steph says, in the end we had to make some hard choices among many great candidates.

Where would I go today? It’s the summer solstice and peak blooming time for Catawba rhododendron, so I’d set my sights on the Roan Massif, where I’d hike above the clouds in its magnificent open meadows and flowering shrub balds where nothing obstructs the spectacular view!

CR: You mention climate change and the introduction of foreign pests or species as potential threats to the forests. Can you elaborate on why this is an ecological danger?

TW: The natural communities we visit in the beginning of the 21st century are substantially different from those we might have visited in the early 20th century. In some cases the changes are positive, having resulted from conservation and restoration of natural communities. In many cases, however, the changes are deleterious, having resulted from wanton destruction of natural resources and the inadvertent introduction of harmful pests, like the chestnut blight or the balsam woolly adelgid. When we consider the exotic diseases and invasive exotic species that are currently plaguing our southern Appalachian forests, we must realize these forces will destabilize and eventually degrade these natural communities. We can say with little doubt that the forests our grandchildren visit in the early 22nd century will be substantially different from those we describe in this book. In this context, climate change is certainly the wild card, with the potential to disrupt existing natural communities in ways not seen since the last Ice Age. However, in this case humans, not other forces of nature, are the causal factor.

CR: Because trails and forests are susceptible to natural events, like fires or tornados, what provisions did you take while writing in case of any sudden major changes to the included hikes?

SJ: [Laughs] The full manuscript went to the Press on November 8th. On November 12th, I sent Tom an email. “Hike 22 is on fire!” Linville Gorge was burning, from an unattended campfire in the Table Rock Picnic area, and eventually spread to about 2000 acres. Fortunately, we had covered the possibility of a fire in this area when writing the hike’s narrative. Indeed, fire is the major theme of Hike 22, with a sidebar featuring two fire-adapted pines. So this hike is still up-to-date in a very real sense. Throughout the book, we emphasize the idea that change is the only constant, and we teach readers to piece together the story for themselves. On a more practical level, we try to avoid pointing out specific features like large, old trees, because we know they may not be there or be visible forever. Each hike is a snapshot in time, but we teach readers how to look for clues that will help them interpret the inevitable changes that will occur after our book is published. If we have done our job well, we have taught readers to read and interpret the landscape for themselves—not only for these thirty hikes, but all over the southern Appalachians.

CR: You encourage readers to view the forest from a curious, questioning perspective, always asking why things are the way they are. Can you speak to why this is important?

SJ: My relentless curiosity as a kid has only worsened with age, so this comes naturally for me. But honestly, I find that anyone who has their curiosity kindled soon finds that they want to know more—much more. What makes ecology—and all of science—so exciting is discovery. Walking along the edge of what we know allows us to peer into the vast chasm of what we don’t know.

CR: You say “the present can only be fully appreciated in the context of the past.” How so?

TW: Most of the natural communities we see reflect events in the past. Nature has no recipe that dictates exactly what will be found at each place. Instead, environmental conditions provide broad guidelines, which are then influenced by time and space. For example, we note the absence of red spruce and Fraser fir on some summits that should support them, given their elevation and other environmental attributes. As we discuss, understanding such absences requires that we consider climatic fluctuations in the past that may have driven spruce and fir off the summits, as well as processes that may have prevented their return.

In the more distant past, evolutionary processes, climate disruptions, and major geologic changes (such as continental drift and the formation and breakage of land bridges) have also shaped the natural communities we see today. Without the historical perspective, we are severely handicapped in our ability to understand the present.

SJ: Right! Each place you visit, whether you realize it or not, reflects past events, with forces that made the natural community you see there today unique. I’ll add that you have to consider recent history as well—human history and natural disturbances such as fire, fire suppression, storms, and logging—to truly understand the story of the place.

CR: In addition to hiking, what other ways do you recommend enjoying the forest?

SJ: Two of my favorites are to slow down or to speed up. Slowing down and becoming more journey-oriented is a great way to enjoy exploring with kids. First, you have to drop your expectations of how far you’ll go or how much time it will take. Once you’ve done that (it can be surprisingly hard), you can really experience nature through their eyes. Kids have an eye for detail that fascinates me, and they’re more curious than most adults. My older son, Stephen, has a knack for spotting salamanders, while my younger son, Simon, would rather race woolly worms than reach the top of the next ridge. And, as research has repeatedly shown, we need to be doing more to get our kids out into nature.

I’m also a trail runner. Something I love about trail running is the amount of ground I can cover in a beautiful place on my own two feet. I’m not especially fast, and I often take my camera. Also, I find that the singular focus required to stay upright wholly occupies the distracted part of my mind, leaving the rest of my brain free to wander. Like most people whose lives exist in multiple dimensions (for me, that includes mom, professor, runner, business owner, and writer), my life can be pretty noisy. Running trails through the forest is my favorite way to quiet my mind, and, as a result, do my best thinking.

CR: Is it best to explore the southern Appalachian forests during a specific season, or can hiking be appreciated year round?

SJ: Each season brings its beauty. In our southern latitudes, you can enjoy hiking year-round, though some higher elevation areas, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway, are closed in the winter months. A crisp, clear winter day brings the best views, and, without the distraction of greenery, you can really appreciate the contours of the landscape. Spring brings a colorful parade of wildflowers as the days grow longer, while warm summer days invite quick dips in icy mountain streams and berry picking. Fall might yet be the best season, though—brilliant autumn colors and nighttime temperatures cool enough to really appreciate a toasty campfire at the end of your day.

CR: After reading Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests, how might I see my favorite hike in a different way?

TW: You’ve said this is your favorite hike, so there are things about it that you already love. Perhaps this hike is a favorite because it offers the calming influence of nature, “far from the madding crowd.” It may offer particular aesthetic charms, or perhaps a chance for birding, botanizing, berry picking, healthy exercise, or a spectacular view of waterfall or landscape. After readingExploring Southern Appalachian Forests, we hope that you will have added to these individual elements a broader appreciation of the hike’s natural setting. You will “see the forest” in addition to the many other things that drew you to this hike in the first place. As you take subsequent hikes, you’ll appreciate the diversity of species that occur along your favorite trail, and why they’ve formed the particular natural community you see. You’ll understand how both recent and deep histories have much to teach us about why your hike’s natural community is the way that it is. We also think you’ll be more attuned to the threats to the well-being of your favorite hike, so that you’ll be more inclined (and better prepared) to help protect its future integrity.

CR: All thirty hikes are on public lands. Why is it important to invest in public land? Under tightening budgets, can we really afford to own so much land?

SJ: National parks have been called “America’s Best Idea,” protecting scenic landscapes (and later, cultural and historical landmarks) for the enjoyment of all. This was a radical concept when originally proposed, particularly for a growing young nation that seemed to have unlimited natural resources. However, proponents recognized that the best way to balance competing interests for natural treasures was to purchase and protect them for future generations.

Our hikes utilize trails in national parks and national forests, as well as state parks. Although we discuss threats such as climate change and invasive exotic species, development as a result of a growing population could well be the biggest threat to the southern Appalachians. As more people flock to the mountains, public land becomes still more precious, providing recreational resources and protecting biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and clean water. Undeveloped land is shrinking rapidly, and much of what is left is irreplaceable. Private, nonprofit conservation organizations, such as the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, also play important roles in protecting natural areas, but they can only do so much with their limited resources. Public institutions must continue to play a leadership role in conservation.

The vision of public parks for all citizens is an enduring one, even as visitor populations swell and park resources are stretched thin. Public land is the best gift we can give to ourselves and to future generations!

Reference: A conversation with Stephanie B. Jeffries and Thomas R. Wentworth, authors of Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2014). The text of this interview is available at www.ibiblio.org/uncp/media/jeffries/.

CONTACTS
Publicity: Gina Mahalek, 919-962-0581; gina_mahalek@unc.edu
Sales: Michael Donatelli, 919-962-0475; michael_donatelli@unc.edu
Rights: Vicky Wells, 919-962-0369; vicky_wells@unc.edu

An interview with Santa following the 2014 Blue Ridge Relay

The Blue Ridge Relay is a 200+ mile race that starts in Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia and ends in Asheville, NC. The 12 Things (in various iterations) have been part of the race for four years. We usually finish in the middle of the pack, but we have more fun and team spirit than any team out there. Here’s a link to the 2014 video made by our official videographer extraordinaire, Gordy Blackwell.

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Interviewer: So, you’re a runner now.
Santa: Yep. Doc said that I needed to drop some weight. I wasn’t about to give up cookies, so I bought a pair of running shoes. Now I’m hooked.

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Ho ho ho! Leg 36, 6.8 mi into downtown Asheville. GO BIG OR GO HOME.

INT: What happened to your reindeer?
Santa: Well, PETA was on my case about the overtime, and the vet bills were through the roof, even with insurance. So I retired them and found them good homes. Now it’s me, my headlamp, and a sack of toys. Overhead is so much lower.

INT: How on earth do you run around the world in one night?
Santa: Subcontractors are the way to go these days. Ultra-running has really taken off, so there are all kinds of weirdos who are willing to run all night. They’re happy to get their long run in so they can spend Christmas Day with their families drinking egg nog and foam rolling. And most of them will work for cookies and a cheap medal, though the real cuckoos insist on a belt buckle. Ho ho ho! You can’t make this stuff up.

INT: Let’s talk about the relay.
Santa: The Blue Ridge Relay is great training as we build up my mileage for Christmas Eve. Plus, it gets everyone in the holiday spirit a few months early. The course is beautiful and the race is incredibly well-run. We have a great team—this is our fourth year—and I’d argue that we have more fun on the Relay than any other team out there. We are known for supporting the runners on every team as well as our own with our wacky brand of Christmas spirit.

11 of 12 Things of Xmas at Santa’s Sleigh, a small family-owned gift shop on Leg 4 in Ashe County. We’re now friends with the proprietor, who dresses as Santa every Christmas Eve.

INT: Word on the street is that you threatened a runner on another team during your last leg into Asheville.
Santa: That’s not true. I merely told him that he’d be on my naughty list if he passed me.

INT: Who was that guy in the yellow tights at the start?
Santa: That’s Elf—name is Jeff. Nice guy and great runner. It wasn’t such a smart idea he had, though, running a sub-7 minute pace down the mountain from Grayson Highlands. We call him “Lightning Tights” now.

Jeff start

Elf leads off the 12 Things of Xmas from Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia.

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We missed our team captain, so I put his head on a stick.

INT: What happened to the Grinch?
Santa: Our team captain and fan favorite, the Grinch, will be back in 2015. He’ll be grumpier than ever, of course. Growing up with bad weather and worse food (not to mention England’s performance in the World Cup this year), it’s no wonder he’s a Scrooge.

INT: You really stepped up the decorations on your vans this year.
Santa: Not bad for a team of 8 men and 4 women, eh? We had wreaths, stockings, tinsel, and Christmas lights this year. We also lit up our runners during the night with battery-powered Christmas lights. Adds a lot of cheer and safety, too.

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Festive vans that just got better throughout the race. Unfortunately, team attire did not improve.

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We rocked the Christmas lights in our sleds, errrr, vans, and hung the stockings with care.

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“My arm hurts.” “What?”

INT: Any tips on what NOT to bring?
Santa: I put jingle bells on my shoes for my first leg. Wow, that was an annoying 10K on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

INT: I hear you had the Gingerbread Man on your team.
Santa: Oh ho ho! Yes, he’s one of our speedy Peeps. Sometimes his head gets a little big—you know, “can’t catch me!” and all that. But he’s a great teammate, despite his addiction to scented candles, I mean Twizzlers in weird flavors.

Good help is hard to find in today's job market.

Quality workers are hard to find in today’s economic climate.

INT: There were reports of guys on your team wearing ugly, Christmas-themed shorts. Can’t you enforce a dress code or something?
Santa: Unfortunately, no. These guys work for cookies, so there’s not much I can do. I don’t think we did anything illegal, unless it’s illegal to be too white. There’s just not much sun at the North Pole.

INT: So where were you most sore after the relay?
Santa: My abs are killing me! It’s not easy sucking in your gut for 6.8 miles while people are driving by taking pictures and video.

INT: Oh, come on. Santa is supposed to have a belly like a bowl full of jelly!
Santa: Yeah, sure, and the whole world knows it. Even Santa struggles with positive body image.

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The 12 Things of Xmas finish strong in Asheville, NC!

INT: Will there be a video this year?
Santa: Yes, of course! Our official videographer Gordy is already hard at work putting it together. I’ll post the link here when it’s ready.

INT: What is your advice to folks who are thinking about doing the Blue Ridge Relay?
Santa: Pick great friends for teammates who can be flexible and roll with the unexpected. Drive safely. And don’t forget to soak in the experience, to have fun and to share the holiday spirit along the way.

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31.5 hours, 208 miles, 12 happy and exhausted teammates. 27K feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of loss. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Maddy’s Mobility: Can you help?

Happy September 1st! Nearly one year ago I had the lucky fortune to be paired with an incredible little girl, Maddy, and her mom, Cassie Barrick, through the wonderful Irun4 organization (http://www.whoirun4.com/). Maddy and I encourage each other with notes, through running and her life with significant disabilities. Maddy has Rett Syndrome, a genetic developmental disability that leaves her unable to walk or talk, much less run and play like most kids her age. She has a wonderful mom who advocates for her and takes her through a grueling schedule of PT, OT, and speech therapy every week. She loves Thumper from Bambi and orange Popsicles.
 
Maddy recently turned 5, and as she grows, it is becoming harder for her mom to transport her in her family’s minivan. A friend of their family has set up a fund to buy Maddy a mobility van that can handle her wheelchair. These vehicles are incredibly costly–they need to raise $15K.
 
September is my birth month and I don’t need a single thing that money can buy–just more time to spend with the people I love and to do the things that are important to me. I am pledging a dollar for every mile that I run in the month of September toward a new ride for Maddy.
 
Would you like to join me? I’m accepting pledges of a nickel, a dime, a quarter, or 50 cents for every mile I run in September for my friend Maddy. Let me know if you wish to make a pledge–fair warning, you all know I run a lot. Or you can make a direct donation to the page. Here’s the link:
 
Every week we are asked to donate to worthwhile causes. But each time I lace up my shoes this month, I will see the face of my little buddy, who works hard to do her best despite a lifelong disability. Your donation will make a very real difference in the lives of this family. Thank you for considering!
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My Irun4 friend, Maddy, and her mom. Who is, by the way, a rock star.

Running the Shut-In Ridge

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Clouds and sunshine on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by Andrew

Andrew, the boys and I camped in Pisgah National Forest for a rainy long weekend. I picked Flat Laurel Gap at Mt. Pisgah because of its elevation (5000 ft.) and proximity to some beautiful areas of western North Carolina. I’d never camped there before, though I’ve taken classes to the bog in the middle of the campground. We’ll definitely go back!

We lucked out on Saturday with the weather. I’d wanted to take the boys to the Shining Rock Wilderness, so we trekked the strenuous Art Loeb Trail above 6000 ft. to Ivestor Gap. After bushwacking (and feasting on wild blueberries) on Grassy Cove Top, we retraced our steps to find the trail, hiking to within sight of Shining Rock from Flower Gap, then turning back on the Ivestor Gap Trail for a challenging 8 mile loop. It was a glorious day, and they loved it as much as I hoped they would.

Family photo at the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness.

My peeps at the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness.

I’d had several recommendations for an out-and-back run on the wide and relatively easy Ivestor Gap Trail, but after trying to construct an elaborate route to meet Andrew and the boys at Graveyard Fields, I decided to simplify things and have Andrew drop me off at the NC Arboretum to run point-to-point on the Shut-In Trail. I’ve been intrigued by Shut-In for some time. It originated in the late 1800s as a path George Vanderbilt took from his Biltmore mansion up to his hunting lodge on Mt. Pisgah. In addition, there’s a wicked race there each November that I’d love to do sometime.

I knew it would be tough, even without running the full 16.3 miles. The trail gains a net 3200 ft. I figured 14.7 mi was as much as I could do—matching the distance I’d done in Charleston the weekend before but adding hills and terrain. My coach enabler best pal, Andrew, dropped me off at the Arboretum and we made plans to rendezvous at the 151 junction in three hours.

The run was as difficult as it was wonderful, and took me through some beautiful and varied stretches of forest. There were many not-runnable steep stretches, but also sections with a reasonable climb, including a few downhill breaks and flats that gave me the sinking feeling that I was going to pay for them later. [Which I did.]

I took my mind off the burning in my lungs during climbs by inventing a Tolkeinian forest classification. Either the oxygen was too limited or the connection was too tenuous, because I didn’t get very far.

Mirkwood.

Mirkwood.

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Lothlorien.

Maidenhair fern (and cove forests) must be Rivendell.

Maidenhair fern (and cove forests) must be Rivendell.

Shut-In has few views, though it does pop out on the Parkway now and then, usually at overlooks. Since it was either steady rain or mist, I didn’t miss much, though the elevation markers that I only glanced at from the car now took on new significance. However, fog makes the colors in the forest more vibrant anyway, and the wildflowers I saw were a good distraction.

Jewelweed, Impatiens pallida

Pale jewelweed, Impatiens pallida

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Starry campion, Silene stellata

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And a crazy fungus!

For some reason, I was reluctant to pull out my map, even as I ran by several Parkway checkpoints. I didn’t look because I was afraid of how far behind I’d be. Finally, at 2 hrs. 45 min., I looked to see where I was. Sure enough, I was even farther behind than I’d thought. I’d never make the 3 hour meeting point.

That’s when I realized that I should have had a back-up plan—at 3 hours, I should go to the closest Parkway overlook and wait for Andrew to find me if I wasn’t at the meeting point. As luck would have it, we were able to text, so after I emerged from the woods again, I asked Andrew to come south and pick me up at Big Ridge Overlook, at 12.3 mi. He and the boys showed up with a towel, Fritos, a sandwich and a chocolate bar. Best. Pit. Crew. Ever.

Lessons from Shut-In:

Gear: Water in my 70 oz. Nathan pack, 2 Justine’s nut butter packages (peanut butter/honey and maple/almond butter, delicious but sticky), a Luna bar, a Cliff bar that I didn’t eat, and a package of Fritos. Should have brought Nuun. I had a map (no compass—the trail follows the Parkway, so getting lost would be quite a feat), phone, small first aid kit, camera, and a page from my NC hiking guide with trail distances. I carried a long-sleeved shirt and a wool pullover in a plastic grocery bag, stuffed into the shock cords on the outside of my pack. I wore shorts, a t-shirt, a hat, and my Brooks Trail Adrenalines.

Train for distance, but account for time. When will I learn this? I can’t get my head around time-training for long runs, though I know many people like it. My mistake, though, is that I chose a distance but miscalculated my time. A 12 min. pace seemed generous, covering snack time, photos, and navigation. I might have been close had I not gained ~2000 ft. in elevation. Instead, I was closer to a 15 min. pace. Moreover, I knew I was behind and ran hard whenever I could. Fine for a race, dumb for a training run.

Plan smarter. I knew I couldn’t run the whole distance, so I should have had Andrew drop me off higher up, on the Parkway, so I could have run 14+ back to the campground. That way he and the boys would not have had to meet me, and I wouldn’t have worried that I was behind schedule.

Angles count. Shut-In was great training for my trail 50K, with long stretches of climbing. I can run, seemingly forever, on a gentle climb. But the tipping point comes eventually, where the steepness becomes not runnable, which turns suddenly into barely walkable without gasping for breath. I need to work on running steeper angles while breathing easy. Hill repeats!

Walk when you need to. Another great lesson to remember. Sometimes I pushed myself to run steep sections to the point of breathlessness. Then the trail would level out, but I was so out of breath by that point that I couldn’t run.

Mental focus matters. Shut-In was my second birthday trail run for Suzie (last year it was in Acadia). This year it was hard, and I felt it. Toward the end, I was so discouraged by the climbing that I had to stop, and I took a few pictures to re-group. I had a hard time pulling out of the downward spiral. Food did not seem to help. And then there were beautiful stretches where the running was easy and fast and I whooped aloud for the joy of flying, and of having known my amazing friend. Such is the strange nature of grief. 

Joy outweighs sorrow.

She would have loved this. RIP.

[“Bedshaped,” by Keane, has been playing in my head]

Backyard Daily: American beech

My favorite class to teach at the NC Botanical Garden is Dendrology: Trees of NC. It is known as one of the hardest class in the Native Plant Studies Certificate Program, yet I never have trouble filling the elective class, and I’ve never had a student fail.

I teach the course the same way I learned dendrology at NC State. Each week Richard Braham took us out in the woods and taught us 12-15 new species of trees. We were responsible for the scientific name, common name, family name, and the answer to a random natural history question. Dr. Braham quizzed us on 10 trees each week. Spelling had to be perfect, and quizzes were cumulative—any tree we’d seen thus far was fair game.

I love teaching dendro because I remember how hard it was, and I like finding ways to make the trees easier to learn. My mini-course is 4 classes, so I only cover about 50 trees. But it’s still hard to remember them all. The growing sense of accomplishment that accompanies each student’s mastery is incredibly rewarding to witness.

My students know that I have some favorite trees. American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is one of them. I love the smooth, gray bark, the singular bright green of new leaves, and the quiet winter woods where they stand out with their tan leaves. In the North Carolina Piedmont, I look for beeches on north-facing bluffs, which stay cooler and moister in the hot summers. In the mountains, Elk Knob (Hike #26 in our book) has forests that are 100% beech.

In the fall and winter, beech is easily recognized by the dry, tan leaves that remain on its branches. I noticed that they disappear somewhat suddenly in spring, displaced by the new green leaves shooting out of the long buds. I decided to take a daily photograph to document the leafing-out of one of my favorite trees and help me observe the coming of spring.

This sequence was taken between April 9th and May 1st, 2014, in Raleigh, NC.

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April 9, 2014

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April 13, 2014

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April 18, 2014

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April 21, 2014

Now things really get exciting. Daily photos from April 23-29th.

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April 23, 2014

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April 24, 2014

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April 25, 2014

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April 26, 2014

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April 27, 2014

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April 28, 2014

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April 29, 2014

May 1, 2014

May 1, 2014

Eight leaves packed into each one of those small buds. It’s amazing what you can see when you look!

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