“He travels fastest who travels alone…but not after the frost has dropped below zero fifty degrees or more.” –Yukon code*
Day had broken, clear and cold, when the woman began the mile-long trek at the start of the Uwharrie Mountain Run. The sun had cleared the edges of the worn and ancient Uwharrie mountains and stared coldly upon the huddled runners at the start. The old timers spoke of the year that the five gallon water containers had frozen solid, and the crowd speculated about recent storm damage. The woman shivered in the chill and was glad when they finally started the race.
The Uwharrie Trail lay ahead for 20 winding miles. The first mile was steep, rocky, and un-runnable, but this did not bother the woman. Though not one of the old timers, she had traversed this steep trail a year before as a chechaquo, and she knew it would get better. Her shivering ceased, though her toes felt like hard lumps of quartz inside her shoes. The woman summited the ridge and flung a look over her shoulder before descending into the rollercoaster of loose rocks and steep hills that was the Uwharrie Trail.
It happened unexpectedly at the first shallow stream crossing. A solid-looking rock shifted, and the woman slipped and stepped directly in the creek. The icy water soaked up to her ankle. In this kind of cold, wet feet spelled danger, or at least a delay while she changed socks. The woman knew she must keep calm. Surely she could make it to the Mile 8 AS with only a few toes lost.
It was true what the old-timers had said, she thought to herself. You don’t venture into the Uwharries alone.
Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. I was in North Carolina, not the Alaskan Yukon, so it was 19 degrees and not 75 below. Best of all, I was surrounded by great people who made every step of the 20 mile Uwharrie run worthwhile and fun.
First, there were all my fellow Peeps who had come to the Uwharries to play for the weekend. We rented the awesome cabin, arrived before dark on Friday afternoon, and soon had a fire and pasta dinner cooking. The boys even had their own lookout tower to sleep in with their buddy Devon. Good times!
Second, there was top-notch race organization that made for smooth logistics. And third, a slew of awesome volunteers stood in the cold for hours to cheerfully proffer treats and other assistance as we ran by.
Uwharrie 20 was my favorite race of 2012 and I was excited to give it another go, now knowing what I did about the course. Really what I wanted to do was run it as hard as I could. However, I hadn’t done the speedwork and hill training to PR, and I needed to take care of my not-injured ankle with the Umstead marathon a month away.
My much smarter friends, Steve and Joanna, who were also doing Umstead, planned to do the 20 as a training run. I didn’t say much about my own race plan, but it seemed like a really sound strategy.
However, me being me, I kept thinking that if I felt good…and if I could be careful…well, I was going to run hard.
Our big 20 miler crew set out for the El Dorado Outpost with plenty of time to spare: me, Joanna, Jon, Steve, Kerry, Laurie, Diane and Stacy. Met up with Ryan, who was so enthused about being healed up and back at Uwharrie that he seemed a bit overdressed for the event in a gray suit jacket. We were soon off and slogging up the worst part of the course—the first mile. About 25% of the fast kids speed-walked (you can’t run) their way to a quarter mile detour. First time ever I’ve been ahead of Jon at the half-mile mark! He soon came flying by with the rest of the speedsters.
I was cold for a good half of the race. The Jack London inspiration hit me while I was shivering and running through a tunnel of mountain laurel near the second creek crossing. My feet were wet and my shaky hands were soaked when I refilled my hand-held water bottle. I had big ups and downs throughout the race—short periods of feeling crummy, followed by feeling great—in hindsight, I think the bad sections coincided with feeling cold. Still, I was having a blast. I love Uwharrie.
Trail runners are awesome—many fun and funny snippets of conversation along the way. And I didn’t hold back on the whoops on the rocky, steep downhills this time. Steve and Kerry caught me perusing the cookie selection at the Mile 5 AS. Steve disappeared over the next hill and Kerry and I ran together on and off for the next 4 miles. I managed to fall twice before arriving at the Mile 8 AS. The first time I suddenly found myself lying on the ground feeling mildly surprised. The second time was more of a flying superman but neither landing seemed to result in any bad damage. Heading into the Mile 8 AS with Kerry, I got a boost seeing my friend and running buddy Danny, who drove down to surprise us all and was there cheering with Carolyn and taking photos.
Miles 10-15 I felt great and wished I’d signed up for the 40. I caught up with Steve and started catching the back of the 40 mile pack. Everyone I passed looked strong and seemed to be in good spirits. I’ll admit that I was a little jealous. At some point I passed a couple and the man said something. “Fifth female.” I stopped. “What? Are you talking to me?” He laughed. “Yep. Fifth female.” I laughed and shook my head. No freakin’ way.
Ever since my third peanut butter and jelly square at mile 11 I’d had “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” stuck in my head, and figured I’d shout/sing it as I came into the Mile 14 AS. But by the time I arrived, pb&js didn’t sound so good anymore. I grabbed an oatmeal raisin cookie instead and regretted it. No one loves cookies more than me, but I like salt when I run. I fed the rest of the cookie to the squirrels and wished for Fritos.
Hit the mile 16 hill, which was steeper and longer than I remembered. I think the stretch from mile 15 to the mile 17 aid station may be the toughest part of the course. After climbing the mountain, there’s a steep, ITB-busting descent into mile 17 and then constant up-and-down on narrow, rocky trails, where I was now jumping off every few minutes to let the 40-milers pass through on their way back.
Did I mention how much I love trail runners? Even the top 3 in the 40 were smiling, encouraging and cheering others on. I was looking for Scott, on his way to rocking his first ultra, but inexplicably passed his neon Umstead tick shirt without seeing him (he looked strong when I saw him arrive at the 20 mi turnaround).
The clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight beamed through the trees onto cups of Fritos at the Mile 17 AS. I grabbed a cup and walked up the hill, savoring the salt. My legs were starting to threaten cramps. I ran when I could but was walking many of the hills. I was glad to see the final set of colored flags and the finish line ahead.
I rolled into the finish around 3:50 and was finally glad I wasn’t doing it again in reverse. The fire felt toasty but I tore myself away to find my drop bag and change clothes. I recognized and introduced myself to Layna, “Willow” of the Trailheads, who was with Bryan (aka PT guy from Little River, now a familiar face and new friend who warned me that he would not be at Umstead if I did something stupid to my not-injured ankle).
I had to tell Willow the story of running into a couple at Eno River who mistook me for her when they saw my Triple Lakes t-shirt. “Hey, do you run with the Trailheads?” “No, I’d love to, but I live in North Raleigh so I haven’t been out there.” She turned to her husband. “You know who I thought she was, right?” “Yeah, I thought she was Willow, too. But she’s a lot thicker than Willow.” DANG. You just can’t keep a conversation like that to yourself. Too funny not to share.
We had a great rest of the day on Saturday. Heard about the 8 mile race (with its own starting fiasco) from Andrew, Bob and Missy, and admired their pottery. The foam roller was passed around, ankles were wrapped and iced. The boys had a grand time with Devon playing in the woods and constructing forts and weapons. We found some more Trailheads at the adjoining cabin with whom to share stories, food, and fire, and just enjoyed a great evening hanging out with friends old and new.
On Monday I found out that the guy I’d passed was right and I’d somehow placed 5th OA female despite a slower time than 2012. I know I gained several places because of the early detour by the speedsters, but it was still pretty cool to finish so near the top (with an 11:30 pace—that pretty much sums up Uwharrie). And, the Peeps tied for 4th place in the team competition, of 10 teams! Rock and roll, Peeps!
I can’t wait to go back. Who knows what next year will bring?
*Admiration and apologies to Jack London, 1908. “To build a fire.” First published in The Century Magazine, v. 76.