Table Rock 50K Race Report

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Who wouldn’t want this spectacular view halfway through a 50K trail race?!

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.

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Yikes!

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.

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You can’t quite see how frazzled I felt in this photo, which Andrew took 30 seconds before the start. Notice crumpled race number and leaking water pack.

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.

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Steele’s Creek, second crossing. This was more precarious than it looked, and even more so when it was at mile 28ish on the way back. Jump!

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.

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Jon and I look like two kids in a candy store. Or maybe two under-trained runners near the start of a wicked trail race.

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.

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You can see the blaze that proves that yes, this is the MST.

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.

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Soapwort Gentian

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.

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Table Rock summit!

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!

Stats:
Finish time: 7:03:29, 13:26 min/mi pace
69/245 finishers; 11/58 women; 3rd Masters female

Stuff:
Oiselle Roga shorts
New Balance tank top
Rebound Racer bra
Baleja socks
Dirty Girl gaiters
Brooks Caldera shoes
Nathan pack
Oiselle runner trucker hat

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URE Marathon. Spoiler alert: I won!

I WON A RACE! First female! Woo hooooo! The end.

OK, two weeks later I am still SO! EXCITED! Because I’ve never won a race before! Not a big race, not a fast race, although it was a gnarly race. It’s on Ultrasignup, so it’s legit!

I went into the inaugural URE Marathon with curiosity rather than expectations. I signed up because I wasn’t running the Umstead Marathon and I wanted an excuse to check out the Uwharrie 100K/100Mile course, which is 3 or 5 loops that are described as “Simply Unrelenting.” Was the figure 8 loop harder than the Uwharrie Mountain Run (UMR) on the Uwharrie Trail? I had to find out.

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URE Marathon elevation profile. 4200 ft. of elevation gain. Like a T. rex with poor dental hygiene.

I haven’t followed a training plan since last spring and was surprised to run better than expected at Uwharrie 20. Then I pulled off my point-to-point marathon (aka the “No Steph, That Does Not Sound Like Fun” Marathon), running from Creedmor Rd. to the Falls Lake Dam on the MST one Saturday with my buddy John (I placed 2nd out of 2). I found myself at the starting line with a good base, though undertrained for hills (a discovery made at UMR).

Brandy and I talked Megan into signing up with us and we drove 2 hours to the start (which I now know is Mile 20 on the UMR). They had both done the Umstead Marathon the week before, so they were planning a fun and easy day in the woods, with their primary focus on a post-run brewery stop in Asheboro. Clearly I need to spend more time around these fun adventure peeps!

The race was set up as a free Fat Ass style, so everyone contributed snacks for the aid stations, which were divvied up and distributed by wonderful volunteers. After a quick race briefing, we started with a 5.7 mile out-and-back on a dirt road before jumping onto the 20.5 mi single-track loop. I ran easy, but noticed that there were only 2 women ahead of me when we started the single track. After a couple miles, I caught up with Jenna—I recognized her face and her name immediately, since we’ve done many of the same races, but had never put them together. She’s had a big early season with some ultra-distance races and had run Umstead last weekend. She’d run the course before, so she gave me some idea that the nice easy running we were doing at the moment was not going to last.

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Race Director Dan Paige gives us some last-minute instructions.

I’d never been on Dutchman’s Creek before, so I was curious about the terrain.
As many friends had promised, the first part was super-runnable, so I cruised along. There were many Scout groups out on the trail and I ran into the first one while slogging up the first big hill, with a slope far steeper than the opening mile of the Uwharrie Mountain Run. They generously allowed me to pass as they carried their heavy, external frame packs. One scout had a ginormous cookpot banging against the outside of his pack, which dwarfed his young frame.

I followed a young woman who was running strong and easy for several miles before closing the gap and introducing myself. Her name was Emily and we chatted for a few minutes. She comes from a triathlon background and had recently gotten into trail running—yeah! She trains with the RWB team near Clayton. We had a chance to talk more after the race and planned to meet up in Umstead for some training.

I was just wishing I’d paid better attention to where the aid stations were located when I came upon the one at the intersection of the two loops, mile almost-12. Clearly I did not stay there long enough, because for the rest of the race I had to listen to other runners rave about the bacon-wrapped pickles, which had vanished by the time I came back through.

I kept thinking that with each foot of elevation loss, I would pay on the return journey of potential energy gain. [Happily, I couldn’t remember the exact equation.] The URE Marathon promises a brutal 4200 ft of elevation gain. Soon I stopped at a clearing where the path was not altogether clear. Two hikers were there and called, “look up to the right.” I looked up—as in, I had to tilt my head back—and saw the yellow flagging above my head on what looked like a pile of rocks (the “confidence markers” yellow flagging were exactly as described and much appreciated—seems like I saw one every time I started thinking, “geez, I sure hope I’m still on the right track.” Thank you organizers!). A sign informed me that I had reached the famous Sasquatch Summit. It did not disappoint—a hands-on-knees slog, including a few places where I used my arms to pull myself up.

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This dead mouse on Sasquatch Summit may have been trying to tell me something.

Not long after that, I saw a sign for the Soul Crusher. It seemed pretty tame at first, until it WASN’T. It went on and on, up and up. The only reason my soul wasn’t completely crushed was knowing that I would not have to run it again.

Because here’s the thing—I was running one loop of this gnarly course today and thinking about what it would be like to run 3 (100K) or 5 (100 mi) of them in October. How in the world would you navigate the course in the dark, and how would you keep yourself moving forward on these brutal loops? There were quite a few Uwharrie 100K/100 mi veterans running, so I asked them. Allen said that the toughest mental decision is whether to stop at 100K, knowing you were finished and not have to run TWO MORE LOOPS (40+ miles) to finish the 100 miles.

I don’t know. During the race, there was not a moment when I thought, “gosh, I could totally see running this course all day and night!” But now that the race is over…maybe it’s doable. Maybe? The nighttime adventure would be something to remember!

At some point Kris from North Augusta caught up to me but declined to pass, though I offered several times. He hadn’t run Uwharrie before so we had a great time talking about trail running and racing as we trucked along.

Kris and I made the left turn onto the Uwharrie Trail. On the Uwharrie 20, that point would be around 12 miles—here, it was close to mile 17. Five miles makes a difference in Uwharrie, although this section isn’t bad. We ran out to mile 17.4 and Kelly’s Kitchen, where I knew my friend Juliet was volunteering. It was great to see her and Jeannie (both ultra-women extraordinaire!). We chatted for a few minutes about the prescribed burn that had been done recently (no, it wasn’t me) and the Uwharrie cookies I brought. Then she said, “you know you’re first female, right?” and I think I said, “Aaaah! No pressure!” I didn’t want Emily to catch me stuffing my face at an aid station, so I grabbed a pb&j and headed back down the trail.

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Perusing the PB&Js at Kelly’s Kitchen. [After seeing this photo, I cut the Wacky Professor Hair back into submission.]

The half mile out-and-back gave us a chance to high-five a few folks. Just 9 miles to go. Now it seemed like a disadvantage to know the course—miles 11-14 on the Uwharrie 20 weren’t bad, but 14-17 are brutal. I told Kris that we had a big climb coming up but the rest wasn’t too bad. He bought it.

Dennis Mountain at mile 22 (instead of 16) was not awesome. But the next section wasn’t as hard as it usually is on the UMR because we only had 1-way traffic. We reached a sign that said we had a mile to go. Before the race, I’d looked at my Uwharrie pacing and, although I didn’t know all of this course, I thought that if I had an amazing day, I might squeak in under 5 hours. My watch said 4:56. “hey Kris, if you can pull off a 4 minute mile, you can break 5 hours. You should totally go for it. I’ll be right behind you.”

“You didn’t tell me that the last part of the race is another climb,” said Kris, no longer buying my marketing. “I wanted to keep it a surprise. Where is that finish line???” There it was, and there were lots of smiles and “good jobs.” We finished in 5:09! First female! I was thrilled!

I spent the next little while hanging out in a chair, making frequent trips to the snack tables, enjoying the beautiful day, and cheering in fellow trail runners. Brandy, Megan and I then headed to the Asheboro brewery with Aline and a few others, where we ordered a large, plain pizza, got a pepperoni, shrugged and wolfed down the whole thing.

Dan Paige’s URE Marathon site promises, “…if you are looking for a race over some gnarly trails with some good people, this might just be what you are looking for.” Delivered. What a fantastic race, great volunteers, and top-notch organization and direction. If you think that the only thing better than Uwharrie is More Uwharrie, this race might be for you!

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Awesome Peep volunteers Juliet and Aline! Also 2 State students recognized me at the finish with the help of my shirt, though they claimed they were not in my class.

Sycamore today

Leaves whipping past my face
Rocks and roots, water and mud
Climbing uphill, careening down
Woods blurring around me
While I see only the next 10 feet.

My breath comes now in ragged gasps
Air goes in, every thought pushes out
Every worry, every doubt, every fear–
Until all I can hear is one voice
Urging, “forward, forward, forward!”

Slowing now, heart pounding, gulping air
Exhausted from the effort
To get out of my head.
This is the gift
That running brings me.

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Forest Ecosystems Daily: Mountain running adventure

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Sunday was our day off mid-course, so I planned a mountain running adventure on the Bartram Trail. The largest peak is Scaly Mountain, and I took the photo from Jones Gap at my turnaround spot. My car is 2 miles on the other side of Scaly. This is when two thoughts enter your mind: 1)

Sunday was our day off mid-course, so I planned a mountain running adventure on the Bartram Trail. I’d already run from the GA-NC border to Scaly Mountain when I was in Highlands last time, so I planned to run the next section starting at the Osage Mountain overlook. The largest peak is Scaly Mountain, and I took the photo from Jones Gap at my turnaround spot. My car is 2 miles on the other side of Scaly. This is when two thoughts entered my mind: 1) “Wow, I ran ALL THAT WAY!” 2) “And now I have to run back! Aaaaah!!!”

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Adventure, challenge, beauty and solitude…thankful for all these things today.

Bluff Mountain Trail Happy Hour Run

In case I don’t get to write more about it, this was a fabulous run. Point-to-point, late afternoon run along the ridgelines and meadows of the Bluff Mountain Trail, part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in northweatern NC. We camped at Doughton Park and this supremely runnable trail weaves along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was warm and the gusts of wind rippled the meadow grass in waves.

Start at Bas

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Bluff Mountain Trail through pasture

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