I signed up for Tanawha Adventure‘s Table Rock 50K last spring, but the race has been on my radar ever since the course was changed. The old 50K course was nearly all gravel Forest Service roads, and only the 50 miler went up to the summit of Table Rock. When I saw the new course video, I was all in. Plus, I love their mantra: Run. Inspire. Conserve.
It took me a couple of years to free up my calendar. Epic adventures are better shared, so I was happy that Dave Woodard was also signed up, and with minimal arm-twisting, my friend Jon Armstrong signed up too. Woo hooo!
My training was not ideal for a 50K trail race in the mountains. Two weeks of teaching in early August left me scrambling to increase my long run mileage, by doing Saturday/Sunday back-to-backs, some long Chicago training runs with Ann that were run/walk intervals on flat terrain, and a few long Peep runs at Umstead. There was no speed work or hill training, and I barely scraped 100 running miles in August. The Blue Ridge Relay added some extra training with a lot of steep downhill on dirt roads.
For the most part, I don’t stress about training. My strengths are not glamorous, but they work for me: I am durable and consistent. Also, I can usually pull out my best on race day. Despite that, I worried about a 50K with 5700 feet of climbing. I was also stressing about having an accident or spraining an ankle two weeks before the Chicago Marathon. My work has been crazy lately, as well, so I’ve had a deficit of sleep and extra stress. It is what it is, and real life is never ideal.
Thursday night came and after celebrating my friend AnaRita, I threw my gear together. Fortunately, Andrew generously packed all our camping gear and supplies. Here is a Jeffries Truth: Andrew thinks to pack anything you could possibly want, whereas I am certain to forget many things—I try to focus on the essentials and figure I can live without the rest. We make a good team!
The first thing I forgot was eggs boiling on the stove on Thursday night. I turned the pot on, forgot about them, and went to bed. Mercifully the house didn’t burn down—no smoke alarms went off. Early the next morning Andrew and Simon cleaned up the burnt exploded mess while I scrambled to get to work. You don’t even want to imagine the smell.
We skedaddled out of work and hit the road at rush hour, barely screeching into packet pickup at 7:40, starving. RD Brandon recommended Moondance Pizza—Jon and Carolyn came up just as we figured out where it was, and we had a little adventure getting there (it is not walking distance, fyi). We arrived late at a tiny house that was packed. The host told us it would be a 25-30 minute wait and my heart sank. I spied a couple sitting at a larger table with 6 empty seats and asked if we could sit with them. That’s how we met Evan and Jackie, who were volunteering at the Table Rock summit the next day! Volunteers are awesome people, so of course they said yes. Andrew and I split a giant pizza with pesto, spinach, portobellos, ricotta, mozzarella, and chicken. It. Was. Insane.
We said goodbye to our friends and arrived at Steele Creek Family Campground after dark, found the area for runners, and hastily set up camp. I suddenly realized that Stephen had my Thermarest and pulled out the Mom-has-a-50K-tomorrow card to demand a trade. I set my alarm and fell asleep listening to barred and screech owls.
I woke up feeling lazy. Then, I realized I better get moving if I was going to fix coffee and get ready. I set up the stove to boil water and filled the French press, then went to fill my water pack and brush my teeth. I came out of the bath house realizing I had 20 minutes until the start. Suddenly everything was a rush, but fortunately Andrew was up and helped me in the mad scramble. I was shoving food in my face, slurping too-hot black coffee, and trying to remember all my race stuff and what I wanted in my drop bag.
Ten minutes before the start and I still hadn’t checked in. I Vaselined my feet and shoved them into my Salomon Speed Cross shoes. I picked them over the Brooks Calderas because they are a closer fitting shoe and the laces stay put. They also have a slightly more aggressive, sticky tread. The Calderas have flat laces that always loosen up as I run, and are overall roomier—which might be good for all the downhill at the end, but I was thinking about the many stream crossings. I laced up and hooked on my lucky scissors gaiters to keep out debris.
As I walked across the field to check in and find my friends, something wasn’t right. I had not had much coffee and couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong, but Something. Was. Definitely. Not. Right. I checked in, but barely greeted Carolyn, Jon, and Dave because I was distracted. The shoes. Something is wrong with the shoes. I hadn’t worn the Salomons in a few months, so maybe they just felt smaller and less cushy compared to the newer Brooks. But that wasn’t it. They didn’t FIT right. They felt like I’d never worn them before. They felt flat and hard, but they weren’t old enough to lose so much cush—. Oh. Oh no. The cushion is exactly what’s wrong. It’s wrong because there are no insoles in these shoes.
Yes, I’d removed the insoles some weeks ago to dry out after a wet run. Who knows where they were now, but they were definitely not here. We had about 6 minutes. I asked Andrew to grab my other shoes. Then I panicked and ran to the car, but he wasn’t there and the shoes were gone. Then I saw him—he’d put them in my drop bag. Three minutes to start—I handed everything to Andrew and Carolyn, took my shoes off, and jumped around putting on the new shoes, trying not to hyperventilate. Gaiters hooked, Andrew snapped a quick photo, and we are off to the starting sound of banjo! It was perhaps my worst start ever. I wanted to shoot myself with a tranquilizer gun, seriously, so I can’t even imagine how everyone else felt.
I’m hardly ever nervous before races, because you know, I do this for fun, I’m not planning to win, and so what, but I was really unnerved. I kept going on about what would I have done if I hadn’t had spare shoes, because no way could I have run in shoes without insoles. I could hear myself obsessing but couldn’t stop. Jon was too nice to smack me upside the head, which might have helped calm the pointless drama. Fortunately, we ran into some other runners I’d met at earlier races this year, so the conversation finally shifted and as we headed across a beautiful meadow, I settled down and looked forward to the day unfolding. Woo hoo, it’s time to run!
Temperatures were cool but projected to climb into the high 80s. The slow train start of a trail race is never my favorite, finding it hard to get my rhythm with constant bottlenecks. Still, I enjoyed catching up with folks I recognized and chatting with others as we started the long climb toward Linville Gorge, which started soon after we entered the woods.
Our first creek crossing came quickly, and there were several. Unlike other trail races, Steele Creek was wide and deep, without rock-hopping options. One was near a beautiful waterfall, and you could stay dry if you were willing to jump over the gaps. The group I was with took their time and I snapped a few photos as we spotted each other.
Jon was leading a small group of us when we heard shouting up ahead. We speculated that someone had fallen into Steele Creek, until we reached the spot. Yellow jackets! Jon ran through and I brushed one off my hand while trying to pass through. The three runners behind us each sustained 3-5 stings. Fortunately, none of them were allergic. I did have a funny visual about this nest of bees getting more and more angry as scores of runners continued to come by. RD Brandon told us on Monday that he saw that a bear had dug up several nests along the trail, so the last laugh was on them.
The trail was climbing, then we came out on dirt road. A few runners came flying past and it finally dawned on me that they were the 30K racers. I was wondering what was in their Wheaties and why I didn’t get any. The 30K runners turned around at the second aid station, near the top of the dirt road to head back to the start. We turned around there too, but descended past the trail junction and onward.
My lack of run training meant that I couldn’t run many of the steep uphills, even on the road. However, my Ann Camden Interval Plan had me hiking like a boss. People would pass me on the downhills and I’d march past them on the next steep hill. Along the way I’d yell “rock and roll!” at people, as I usually do. [doesn’t everyone get tired of “good job”?]
I ran with several first-time ultra-marathoners, who were doing a great job of moderating their pace even when the road was easy. All the ones I talked to were successful finishing! For a brief moment, the road opened up and a jagged peak came into view. You had to tilt your head to see it. “What mountain is that?” I laughed. “That’s Table Rock. We’ll be on that summit less than five miles from here. Why are we still going down?!”
I had studied the maps, but was still puzzled about how we’d only pass the Table Rock parking area once. Suddenly, our route took an abrupt left onto single-track, and I saw the signature round white blazes of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Oh boy. I knew the way now, and it was a doozy.
Ken, Joanna and I had hiked that section during an adventure a few years ago, when we needed to get back to Table Rock from the Spence Ridge Trail. Before hitting the summit trail, it passes an old logging deck—the same logging deck, I’m sure, where I’d camped with the Mountaineering and Whitewater Club in college. Around midnight we’d round everyone up and hike to the summit to sober up, WITHOUT LIGHTS. I can’t believe we survived our own foolishness.
The race leaders were also flying back toward us on the steep downhill. Here the forest was lush, at least, and I enjoyed the early fall wildflower show as I moved slowly forward.
The MST intersected the Table Rock summit trail and I turned left to hoof it to the top. I was starting to see runners with serious cramping. I’ve never had bad cramping, but it occurred to me that this terrain and heat made for ideal conditions. I had forgotten my small bottle that fits in my pack that I use to mix Nuun, so I was trying to drink Gatorade at every aid station. I noticed that my hands were swelling and my face was salt-crusted, which was not a great sign. I’ll add salt tabs to my pack next time.
Views opened up along the trail as it became higher, rockier, and steeper. Finally, I emerged at the summit and was greeted by my pizza friends Jackie, who marked my bib, and Evan, who graciously snapped my picture! It was a clear day with gorgeous views. I chatted with them for a minute, took some photos, and decided it was time to head down to the mile 19.4 aid station in the parking lot.
During the trip down I decided I was going to re-lube my feet and change socks. The first part of the descent would be dry, and my feet were feeling hot, damp, and gritty despite my scissors gaiters. I grabbed my drop bag, plopped in a chair, and took my wet shoes off. More Vaseline and dry socks felt awesome. I grabbed some food and Gatorade, thanked the volunteers and headed back.
We headed back up the summit trail a little ways before turning left to run back on the MST. Now I was running steep downhill and passing folks still heading up. My legs felt good, but I was well aware that I still had 10 miles to go. We made it back out to the road and the aid station (thank you, Aline!) before turning right on the road for a short-cut.
Someone was pacing close behind me, and I invited them to pass. Turns out Lexi and I had run together a bit earlier, but this time we stayed together and I was happy for the conversation. We crossed the big boulder waterfall at Steele Creek with another woman and I really paused this time, contemplating jumping the gap onto slippery rocks with tired and wobbly legs. I paused, took a deep breath and jumped. We all made it. Then we celebrated because we realized we were below the bee’s nest!
I really appreciated Lexi’s company, which made the miles go by. We talked about her big plans for Chattanooga 100 and I told her about Chicago. We pulled into the last aid station and I grabbed another handful of salty potato chips. They were out of cups, so I fished a clean-looking one out of the trash. It was HOT and I had a side stitch, and my eyes were gooping up, making my vision cloudy. We left the last aid station, running downhill as well as some flat sections. I had forgotten where the aid stations were, so I didn’t know how far we had to go. Lexi said 4.8 miles. We powered on.
A lot of folks were suffering in the heat of the day. I was ready to be done (specifically, I was glad it wasn’t 50 miles), but I was running just fine. I passed 17 people in the last 10 miles or so to the finish. One guy was lying in the sun in an open field, but assured me he was fine. Others were bent over or walking painfully.
The field that was so beautiful in the early morning light was now a shade-less, hot slog to the finish. I put my head down and cranked it out, determined not to walk. Finally I saw the turn up ahead to run across the bridge. As I did, I heard cheers from fellow runners sitting in the creek, in addition to Andrew, Stephen and Simon! Then I high-fived Carolyn as I made the final run across the finish line.
Whewwwww. I was boiling. Stephen put his hand on my arm and said, “whoa Mom, you are really hot.” Andrew brought me a cold Gatorade and I stuffed ice in my shirt and gratefully sat in a chair to rest in the shade. After a while I ate a few pizza slices while trading stories about the day and the beautiful course. I then grabbed a Black Bear Ale and the boys and I sat in the creek with Dave to cheer in the other runners. The cold creek water felt awesome on my tired legs, and it was fun watching everyone finish.
After a good soak, I headed back to chat with Jon and Carolyn. Jon was his usual positive self, raving about how beautiful and tough the course was, and he took back his earlier threat to delete any email I sent with the subject line, “I have a great idea!” I also heard from local friends that I was 3rd female Masters, and there was an award! I grabbed my hooded finishers t-shirt and a pottery award.
Loved this race, which was challenging, well-organized, and very well-marked. The volunteers were top-notch, as were the race t-shirts, socks, and finisher’s hoodie. My favorite thing might be that they donated proceeds to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, to help steward the trails that we had just spent the day enjoying. Hats off to Tanawha Adventures. I hope to be back!
Finish time: 7:03:29, 13:26 min/mi pace
69/245 finishers; 11/58 women; 3rd Masters female
Oiselle Roga shorts
New Balance tank top
Rebound Racer bra
Dirty Girl gaiters
Brooks Caldera shoes
Oiselle runner trucker hat