Nature Photography Challenge

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I’ve really enjoyed seeing my friends’ posts for the Nature Photography Challenge (‪#‎challengeonnaturephotography‬), and after Julie Tuttle and Dan Pittillo challenged me, I spent a few days thinking about what kind of “theme” might guide my choices. I decided to … Continue reading

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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OVERDUE: MST 50K Race Report

The MST 50K was at the end of March, enough time lapsing that the details are becoming fuzzy—which might bring some refreshing clarity and conciseness to my overly long race reports. Here’s what I remember:

DISTANCE UPGRADE
I was originally signed for the 12 miler, which I ran last year, but after finishing Uwharrie 20 (another race report that alas, will not be written) without any significant problems, I decided it was time to cross off the DNF from 2013 and finish this 50K. My only regret was missing out on running with some of my favorite running buddies who were running the 12 miler.

TRAINING (OR NOT)
I had to make the distance switch a month before the race. February turned out to be the nastiest month here in Raleigh, with nearly 2 weeks of school out for snow and ice as well as the coldest day on record. So my training wasn’t all that great, but then again, it never is, so I’ve mostly stopped worrying about it. Perfect training will never be my top priority, so I’ll just thrash out there with the weekend warriors and have a good time. I win every time!

coldest day

Feb. 19, 2015 was the coldest day on record in NC. Overnight lows were 12 and the high that day was 23. I put sheet metal screws in an old pair of trail shoes and had a memorable 12 mile run on the MST in the deep silence of winter.

TIME GOALS
This was my second 50K. The first was Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock last fall, a more technical point-to-point trail race with a lot more climbing. I finished that race in 6:15 and felt great. Despite my lackluster training (see above) I thought I could break 6 hours on an easier course.

PACING
The Falls Lake section of the MST is deceptively difficult. It lulls you into a contented rhythm of short ups and downs as you run from Blue Jay Point County Park to the Falls Lake Dam, without any long climbs that force you to walk. This is how I ran the first half without any walking, arriving at the dam in 2:44, with a glance at my watch and an “uh-oh” in my head. Not that you could tell—I was having a great time. I dropped a layer and headed back out quickly, where I saw Jon, Will and Joanna finishing the 12, but missed Steve and Danny who must have been right behind me.

One friend said I looked like a kid on Christmas morning. I love a day on the trails so much, and it was great to see Karla and Amanda at the turnaround!

One friend said I looked like a kid on Christmas morning. I love a day on the trails so much, and it was great to see Karla and Amanda at the turnaround! Photo by Amanda.

My big brothers (from other mothers) nearly caught me at the dam, but I escaped before they arrived.

My brothers (from other mothers) nearly caught me at the dam, but I took off before they arrived. What is the Grinch wearing?! Photo by Amanda.

Complacency on the way out meant chatting and running too fast in the company of other runners. This is what makes trail races great, though. The downside was that I felt crummy after the turnaround. Fortunately Will’s brother John caught up with me and we ran together for a couple of miles, but not before being passed by several women. I take pride in running a strong back half, so I was crabby that I couldn’t run faster.

FINISH LINE EXCITEMENT
Whoever thinks that mid-pack finishers aren’t competitive, or that 50K finishes are as boring and painful to watch as jury selection, should have witnessed the end this race. I started feeling better about five miles out from the finish and picked up my pace, reeling in a few people along the way. One woman, Katie, whom I’d enjoyed running with near the beginning, was well ahead of me at the turnaround. I was surprised to see her again as she lamented that she should have reigned in her pace and was cooked. “Well, we’re only a couple of miles out—let’s get this done” I said, and she tucked in behind me, pushing me to run harder and harder as we approached the finish. I could see we were rapidly closing the gap with the two women ahead of us but wasn’t sure if we had enough distance left to catch them.

Incredibly, the 4th through 7th place women finished within 30 seconds of each other. I was disappointed to be at the back of that group, 7th female of 23. Katie sprinted by me as we headed into the final stretch, nearly catching the woman in front of her. Argh, I hated being out-sprinted! Later, I saw that a) she was in her 20s, and b) I had pulled off a great 50K PR with 5:46. So I got over it.

Exciting finish for a 50K! You can just see my orange shirt behind another woman and Katie. I wanted to catch them BAD!

Exciting finish for a 50K! You can just see my orange shirt behind another woman and Katie, and we were hauling butt.

Whew! Glad that's done.

Whew!

PEEPS RIDE AGAIN
Once again, I was proud of our Peep team results! Our team (where they count your best-5 finishes by gender) placed 3rd behind the Carolina Godiva Track Club and the TrailHeads. Peeps rock!

THANKS
I was thrilled to see Andrew and the boys cheering me at the finish, along with my friend Steve. The finish line area was an open and grassy field, with lots of great food and a relaxed atmosphere to chill out and trade race stories. Thanks to Bull City Running for yet another stellar trail race!

Me and my best pal, who's holding my sweaty gear.

Me and my best pal, who’s nice enough to hold my sweaty gear. Great day on the trails! Photo by Steve.

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 elaborated, beaming. “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!

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]

The Never-Ending Reindeer Run (#NERR) Part 3: Lessons

I’m running Uwharrie 40 for the first time next Saturday, so it’s time to wrap my head around running that distance and what I’ll want to have with me. I’ve also had this list open and in editing mode for awhile, so it’s time to wrap it up.

What we did well:

1. Having an amazing co-conspirator is a must. Not only is Joanna more rational than me, but she had a similar vision. We were all about having fun and enjoying the adventure, but we were both committed to finishing the distance. And, we’re different enough we brought different strengths to the planning and execution of the adventure.

2. Running on Friday seemed silly given that 3.5 mi was a drop in the bucket toward our overall distance. However, it gave us a “shake-down” for the long run on Saturday and helped us prepare for the long day on Saturday.

3. Vaseline is awesome. I’ve fortunately had few problems with chafing and blisters, but dry winter weather will sometimes put deep, and painful, cracks in my feet. I had one on my heel that was mostly healed before the weekend. I generously slathered my feet with Vaseline before putting my socks and shoes on that day. Zero blisters despite running for nearly 10 hours, 7 of them in the rain with wet socks.

4. Extras of everything, or at least two trail maps. I lost mine at dinner on Friday but fortunately bought two and gave Joanna one. Joanna didn’t lose hers.

5. I’m not a big fan of gels–more than 2 guarantees nausea. However, I was glad I had one with caffeine in my pack. I woke up with a migraine on Saturday. I didn’t want to take my big-league meds, but caffeine can help. Running helps as well–all the blood going to my legs eases the dilation of blood vessels in my head, which causes the migraine. My headache never really went away, but the caffeine helped take the edge off and kept the weird visuals (like double-vision) to a minimum. I will always keep a Cliff Shot with caffeine in my pack.

6. My Nathan running hydration pack (70 oz.) was great. Perfect combo to have water in the pack and a small hand-held in the pocket which I used for Nuun. I brought extra tablets and could fill the bottle from my pack. I had plenty of pockets for snacks, my camera, my phone, and a small first aid kit.

I learned a lot while running 50 miles on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail:

1. Always have a headlamp, and check the batteries, especially if you are starting a no-drop run on a Friday evening in December at 4:30. You will inevitably start late because of rush-hour traffic and run slower than you expected. I brought my headlamp but the batteries had died the day before. We definitely should have had them in our drop bags at Creedmor Rd. on Saturday. Without Nancy’s headlamps, we would not have finished 32 miles on Saturday.

2. For long distances on trails, plan time, not distance. I planned and ate snacks as though I was doing a 20 mi run to Creedmor Rd (where more snacks were stashed), not considering that it would take nearly 7 hours to get there. I had more snacks with me but didn’t eat them.

3. Focus on my/our needs. I knew this, but still found myself not wanting to slow others down. I should have stopped sooner than an hour and a half to eat something but didn’t want to interrupt the flow of a fun trail run or fall behind the others. Despite a good breakfast, I think I ran a calorie deficit for the rest of the day—fortunately not enough to bonk, though a calorie deficit definitely contributed to my despairing mood at Shinleaf.

4. Refill water when you have the opportunity. I completely forgot to call Falls Lake to make sure the rec areas were open. When we reached Blue Jay Point, we still had plenty of water and didn’t refill because we planned to refill at Shinleaf. When we arrived, we found the restrooms closed and the water turned off.

5. Be efficient at aid stops. Sure, we weren’t in a hurry, but stopping either too often or stopping too long each time added up. I should have been thinking ahead about what I needed to do during the stop.

6. Walk when you need to, but run when you can. Sometimes I found myself walking for long periods even though I felt fine to run.

7. Looking at other “reasonable distance” stage races, I found that most average 20-25 miles/day. Since this was our ultra run for 2013, we wanted one day with 30+ mile distance, but we probably would have felt better had we done a more even mileage split between Saturday (32.2 mi) and Sunday (14.5 mi).

8. Once again I learned the importance of mentally breaking down a long distance into manageable chunks. The only time I was discouraged during the whole journey was when we reached Shinleaf feeling tired and I realized we were only halfway through our distance. Joanna wrote down the section distances on her arm on Sunday. The smaller sections not only seemed more manageable (focusing on the next 3.5 mile section, not the total mileage), but the road crossings reminded us that we were making progress.

This time next Saturday, I’ll still be out on the Uwharrie Trail, hopefully running. My goal is to experience the deep joy that comes from a long trail run and pushing my limits, accept and appreciate what I can do, and look inside myself to see what I can see.

Must be present to win.

Covering ground like water flowing over rocks.

Covering ground like water flowing over rocks.

The Never-Ending Reindeer Run (#NERR) Part 2: The Journey

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Uwharrie shirts, check! Ready to start!

Friday, December 13
It’s an old sailors’ superstition that voyages should never start on Friday, much less Friday the 13th, but we are rational types, not swayed by old sailors. We were, however, swayed by unglamorous rush hour traffic, though we started on our 3.5 mi leg reasonably close to on time.

We had a great crew of Andrew and our boys, Jon, Will, Marcus and Suzanne to start our 50 mile journey as the shadows of the golden December afternoon grew long. We took it easy, admiring familiar views, joking and laughing.

I was a little quieter than usual—going through my mental checklist—trying to think of what we might need for Saturday, feeling out my feet, and wondering what I would forget or wish I had on the long day ahead. I can be highly organized when needed, but find the effort of managing details exhausting. The forecast for Saturday looked dismal, with rain, heavy at times, starting late morning and continuing through the day. However, Joanna and I both felt confident about covering the distance.

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Andrew and our younger son, Simon, helped us kick off our adventure. Simon’s first point-to-point run!

Dusk fell and we had not quite reached the cars. It was one of Simon’s first point-to-point runs and after we explained that we were only running one way, he enjoyed the journey and worried less about the distance. We wrapped it up and reconvened at Milton’s Pizza and Pasta with Audrey and Carolyn to carb-load for Saturday.

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We had a great crew for Day 1!

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Because it’s the hunting season and we were running through state gamelands, we chose our 2013 Umstead marathon shirts. We also removed our antlers prior to takeoff.

Saturday, December 14th
Joanna and I met at Rolling View in Durham at 7:00 am. You know it’s going to be a long run when it takes this much time to drive shuttle. We left my car there, dropped off supplies at Creedmor Rd, and parked where we’d finished the previous night, at Raven’s Ridge Rd.

We actually arrived at the start at 7:30, but we’d told friends we were starting at 8:00. Inexplicably, we did not head down the street for a quick cup of coffee. A great crew joined us for the first few miles: Diane, Gordy, and AnaRita had started earlier then turned around and ran back with us; Melina, Mimi, Bubba, and Missy set up a shuttle and went one way with us, and Audrey and Lisa saw us off before they took their pooches for a walk.

We fell behind our estimated time early and significantly, and I’m not sure how. Our friends knew that we had a long day ahead and let us dictate the pace, and we stopped frequently for photographs and walk breaks. We guesstimated our total finish time for 32.2 miles would be 6-8 hours, though we knew 6 hours was unlikely.

We said goodbye to our peeps at Possum Track Rd., and Joanna and I were on our own for a few miles. It finally felt like we were doing a long-distance run. We were quiet and grew more focused. The section between Possum Track Rd. and Blue Jay Point County Park has beautiful beech and holly forests, and some large swaths of mountain laurel that will flower come May–definitely worth a return visit. Today it was overcast and the rain started pattering. Our banter about gunfire was no joke—we passed through state gamelands and it was peak hunting season. We passed one guy with a long bow and could hear intermittent gunfire, fortunately a ways off.

One of my favorite photos of the NERR. Joanna covering some distance on the MST through a beautiful beech forest in winter.

One of my favorite shots. Joanna covering some distance on the MST through a beautiful beech forest in winter.

We met Carolyn and Jon on Six Forks Rd. just outside Blue Jay Point County Park, about 10 miles into our trip, and Jon joined us for the rest of the day. Jon is always upbeat and it was great to have his company. Never once did he complain about our slow pace or the lousy weather we would have most of the day.

It started raining in earnest soon thereafter, maybe around 11:00. Time slipped by without me really noticing, something that has happened to me in previous long run experiences. We switched off leading and following, without really discussing it, just getting into the groove of moving across the terrain. These are moments that ebb and flow and you’re covering ground like water flowing over rocks, almost without effort. When I reach this place I feel like I could keep running forever.

We stopped at Blue Jay Point County Park for restrooms and water, had I been smart enough to refill my pack there, rather than just my small bottle. The pull of the warm Visitor’s Center was hard to leave, and I felt some fatigue as we emerged into cold rain to hop back on the trail.

The section from Blue Jay Point to Shinleaf seemed endless. None of us had run that section in its entirety, and Shinleaf was supposed to be our halfway mark at 15.5 miles. So you can imagine our dismay as we ran on…and on…and on…with no sign of Shinleaf. It was past 18 miles on Joanna’s Garmin when we finally pulled up to the restrooms, only to find them locked and the water turned off.

We were drenched, cold, and discouraged. Again I learned—don’t wait to eat. I kept thinking I’d grab a snack when I got to Shinleaf—I needed the calories sooner. Joanna sent out an update and we were shocked to realize that it was nearly 2:00—we had thought we’d be there by 11-11:30. My body felt as though I’d already run well over 20 miles. Inwardly, I groaned. All I kept thinking was this: We were only halfway. Half. Way.

I pulled out my phone while I snacked to see a text from our friend Nancy. “Need soup? I’ll be home in 10 min and can bring you some.” Sent at 12:15. I felt bad calling and asking her to bring us stuff. I like to be self-reliant. Our next road crossing was Creedmor and we had snacks stashed there. But we were all soaked and shivering. She DID offer, we reasoned. I called.

She answered right away—she and Jean were at Bull City Running in Durham. “Oh…” I said, trying to hide my disappointment, “never mind, then.” “We’re done shopping, and I think there is a soup place next door. Hang on…” I waited while she assessed the options and conferred with Jean. “We’ll be at Creedmor with chicken noodle soup in 45 minutes.” I looked at Joanna and Jon, nodding. Heck yeah. “Thanks a million. We’ll try to get there within the hour.”

We were still cold and stiff, but we now had a purpose. When we reached Creedmor, about 20 mi according to our map, we not only had hot soup waiting, but encouragement from Nancy and Jean, which warmed us as much as the soup. Nancy’s vehicle was a fully equipped mobile aid station. She had a rain jacket, recycled mylar blankets, spare gloves, and two headlamps. We scarfed down the soup as she and Jean used towels to wring out our gloves. I put on my spare jacket and we broke into my tin full of snacks. In about 10 minutes I had eaten soup, Fritos, Uwharrie cookies, a Luna bar, and a Coke, and stuffed my pockets with extra snacks. It was just after 3:00 and the rain had stopped for a few minutes. “Maybe it’s done,” I said hopefully. Jean shook her head. “I just saw the radar. It’s about to start again, and hard this time.”

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Feeling happier with some additional layers, hot soup, and TLC. Nancy and Jean were the best!

As Joanna noted, we weren’t thinking clearly and took the headlamps only “just in case,” because, I thought, surely we’d finish before dark. But was after 3:00 and we still had 10 miles to go. We thanked our buddies many times, crossed Creedmor Rd, and headed west.

It started raining again, and hard. “So…what do you guys like to do for fun?” I called through the downpour. They chuckled. We were feeling better after our rest stop. And from here on out, we’d be covering trail none of us had seen before. We were intrepid explorers again.

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We actually saw this on Day 3 but passed many other old homestead and outbuildings like it in the rain on Saturday.

Unfortunately, it was raining too hard for photos, but we passed some interesting sights. We squelched through mud for what seemed like a mile on the long section between Creedmor and Boyce Mill Rd, which made running nearly impossible. We passed a few overgrown clearings with old home sites, some beneath the spreading canopies of large oaks that spent their youth in the open. The gloom of the day made them a little spooky.

We grew quiet again as we focused on the task at hand. We had a map but didn’t want to stop long enough to take it out in the rain, so we killed time by speculating how far we had left to go. We came off the trail at the Waterfowl Impoundment Area on Highway 98 and checked the map posted there. It was another 3.7 miles to my car.

Conference time. It was nearly 5 pm and rapidly getting dark, and it was still pouring. It would take us more than an hour to get to Rolling View. Joanna and I looked at each other, trying to guess what the other was thinking. I couldn’t tell whether she was merely willing to keep going, or really WANTED to finish the leg tonight. Personally, I felt kind of ambivalent. We could get out of this mess and just start here at 98 in the morning. We looked at the map again and realized we would have to wait at least 30 minutes for Andrew or Carolyn to drive up to 98 to find us. Forget that—we were moving on. I gave Andrew a quick call to let him know we were doing fine and planning to finish.

Headlamps on! We jogged up 98 and then ducked back on the MST. I wondered what passing drivers must have thought of us. Joanna and Jon took the headlamps but I preferred to run in front and retain as much peripheral and night vision as I could for as long as possible. My greatest concern was that I was steadily getting colder. I wasn’t sure that we could move fast enough to stay warm, and mentioned to Jon that although we were now committed to finishing, that we might have made a mistake. If one of us got hurt or hypothermic, it would be pretty difficult to claim in hindsight that we’d made the right decision. I didn’t dwell on it or worry about it—just made note of it and moved on.

The last of the twilight faded and we were really in the dark. We tried to switch off the lead but since the headlamp was on Jon’s head, all he could see was rain, so he stayed just behind me while I looked for the next trail blaze in the dim light. Joanna had a lamp behind us and we moved, mostly in silence, through the dark forest. It was easy to tell when we’d taken a few steps off the trail, because the untraveled forest floor was much softer underfoot, so we never went astray for long. When we did, we retraced our steps to the last blaze, then scanned 360 degrees to find the next one. The trail blazes were like little lanterns in the woods, beckoning us forward. Suddenly, I realized that even though I was freezing and exhausted, that THIS was the adventure, and well worth the price of admission. As Andrew loves to say, life is rich!

After a few stumbles, we resigned ourselves to power hiking. We passed a few spur trails and what looked like access roads, but I insisted on continuing to follow the blazes, which I knew would put us right where we parked. I didn’t want to risk a short cut and get lost. We suddenly came to a sign with an arrow that said Parking Lot and hoped it was the right parking lot. Soon thereafter we saw my car. We made it! Shaking with cold, we piled into the car and went to retrieve our vehicles. It was after 6:00.

My desire for a hot shower was starting to trump my desire for food, but Joanna and Jon pointed out that once I’d had that hot shower, I wouldn’t leave my house, but I’d still be hungry, which was 100% true. So we changed clothes at Chow where we met Andrew and the boys and Andrew treated us to a celebratory dinner. Joanna and I felt we’d earned the Flatliner—burgers with a fried egg and bacon. We’d run 32.2 miles in 9 hours and 50 minutes—the longest amount of time I’ve ever been on my feet for a run. Yeah!!!

Sunday, December 15
My shoes didn’t dry overnight, but that was OK, as I had a back-up pair. I never did figure out whether I liked the Cascadias that much better than the Adrenalines or if they just seemed better because they weren’t soaking wet and I hadn’t run 32 miles in them.

9:00 seemed like such a reasonable start time when we were planning, but Joanna and I needed to meet at the finishing point, Red Mill Rd., by 8:00 to drop off a car, so I was out the door and on the road at 7:30. I had to get up early because I was so tired on Saturday night that I couldn’t even think about getting things ready for Sunday. Today we wore the 2012 Uwharrie Mountain run shirts, one of our favorites. It was cold, but the sun was shining. It was going to be a good day.

We dropped off my car and drove to Rolling View, where a great crew of Peeps had joined us for a section or two. I was feeling low on energy so it was awesome to see them and soak up their enthusiasm. Jon was back in his still-wet shoes, and Nancy and Jean were there, as well as Suzette, Marcus, Emily, Ashley, Scott and Steve. We set off in high spirits. I felt pretty good, all things considered, though of course my legs were a little stiff and I had ITB pain throughout the morning.

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Our crew on the footbridge. It was a great day.

The section from Rolling View west is probably my new favorite discovery. We wove in and out of coves and around every corner there was a view of the lake. I had my camera out a lot to snap pictures and at one point, lamented that the view we were admiring was not photographable. “Must be present to win,” said Scott, and that was a great mantra to carry us through the morning.

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Cypress trees near the long footbridge. The day was perfect.

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Our crew on the footbridge. Sharing the morning made it even better!

The section ended with a long footbridge through a beautiful section of the lake, with buttressed cypress trees hugging the shoreline. It was perfect. On the other side, we said goodbye to some of our friends and headed on. Ashley and Scott ran a shuttle and saw us to Cheek Rd. They are both triathletes, and every time we came to a road crossing, they and Jon exclaimed that they’d been there before on a bike ride. Marcus and Jon stayed with us to the finish.

Me, Joanna, Jon and Marcus at Cheek Rd and headed to the end.

Me, Joanna, Jon and Marcus at Cheek Rd with just 5 miles to go.

The route got decidedly less scenic as we approached I-85, and you could tell that this section was put in as a connector, not as a primary recreational trail. It was a bit of an adventure finding the tunnel that went under I-85, as we passed an air field and then ran parallel to the roaring highway, picking our way through standing water and a lot of trash. Finally we found the tunnel and then ran the short section to Red Mill Rd, just a nondescript rural road in Durham County, where we found my car. It took us just over four hours to run the 14.4 mi sections, so we felt good about how our tired bodies loosened up once we got moving.

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Unscenic corridor along I-85 before we found the tunnel.

So that’s a wrap for the Never-Ending Reindeer Run. Joanna’s great re-cap is here. I’ve started a couple of lists of notes, one of what we did well and another with some of the many things that I learned, that I will save for another post. If you’re still reading, thanks for coming along and experiencing our journey. I’m not sure that I can explain any more clearly our multi-modal reasons for doing the run—on the one hand, doing it because it was a fun and unforgettable adventure, on the other, tackling a tough challenge that tested our limits.

I’m sure we’ll plan more adventures like this one, and we’ve had many subsequent conversations that have started with “Next time…”

Afterward, someone mentioned how different our experience would have been, if the weather had been nicer. True enough. But the weather gave us the experience we had, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

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