Black Mountain Marathon, virtually.

On Sunday I did a hard thing, and today I feel brave and empowered and energized and also very tired. Bone-tired. Happy tired.

I’ve had the Mount Mitchell Challenge on my radar for years, but the few times I’ve applied for the lottery, I missed getting a spot. It’s a 40 mile run from Black Mountain, NC to the summit of Mount Mitchell and back, in late February. I mean, anyone can see how this would be enticing, right?

In 2021, if you signed up for the virtual Black Mountain Marathon, you could run it anytime in February, submit your results, and you’d be guaranteed a spot in the Mitchell Challenge in 2022. Both races start in downtown Black Mountain, go through Montreat, then climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, mostly on the Old Mitchell Toll Rd. The Challenge course continues on, up the Buncombe Horse Trail and then a true slog from Commissary Ridge to the Mitchell summit. And back. Although the actual course was not required for the virtual marathon, I wanted to see what was in store for next year.

I left Raleigh at 5:25 am, parked my car at the finish, and walked a mile to the start on Cherry St. It was 9:30 am. I only had the course map pdf on my phone and the list of roads/trails written on an index card, plus snacks and water. I felt nervous and excited–worried I’d get lost, or I wouldn’t be off the mountain before dark. Bang, I’m off!

I ran through Montreat and found the Rainbow Rd Trail, but was surprised to come out on a road. I went up, then down, but didn’t see the trail continuation. I turned back and saw two women coming toward me. I asked and they said, “oh yes, you have to go down this driveway to continue.” I asked them about the rest of the course. “It’s next weekend. Wait—you’re doing it today? Like right now?” Sarah and her daughter Abby then offered to run with me up toward Sourwood Gap, and gave me instructions from there. It became a recurring theme that this race is beloved by locals and they are friendly and happy to share information.

At Sourwood Gap I came across a bearded hunter with a truck and a bunch of baying dogs. He confirmed that I was heading up the Old Mitchell Toll Rd. The Old Mitchell Toll Road was a wide path lined with large rocks, built in 1925. It was in decent condition and certainly drivable with an ATV, and it used to take adventurous tourists up to Camp Alice near the Mitchell summit for $1. The marathon course climbs nearly 3000 ft in the first half, but the grade was rarely too steep—what slowed me more was the loose rocks and trying to keep my feet dry and stay off the icy spots. Soon I came to what Sarah and Abby called the Crack Shack. Though apparently it is less of a drug spot than a gathering place for hunters whose shirts that don’t *quite* tuck into their pants.

I absorbed the forest around me as I climbed from acidic cove into beautiful and crooked chestnut oak forest. There was some northern hardwood forest with some Big Sug (large sugar maple), and one slope that was north-facing had a beautiful, mossy birch boulderfield. At one point the trail went out on a ridge and I spied pitch and Table Mountain pine and even some Carolina hemlock as I ate a mini pb&j. I watched the woods for my first red spruce. As I approached the Parkway, I came into high-elevation red oak forest, and finally nearly 100% red spruce (at which point I was probably at 5000 ft).

I recently finished Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass; her book spoke to me deeply as a forest ecologist and I have been thinking about land acknowledgment and ways to bring reciprocity into my life and teaching. I was inspired by the tradition of the Thanksgiving Address and have struggled a bit to cultivate personal tradition without cultural appropriation. A small starting place would be to express gratitude for the land whenever I travel, whether that’s Umstead Park on Saturday or a run like today. Water seems like a universal gift, one that I always have, precious and life-giving both to me and all living things. I planned to try this with this run–to share some of my water as I started up the trails. But I became caught up in finding my route and forgot. I was moving climbing the Toll Road when I saw it–Umbilicaria mammulata, growing on a boulder. There is a chapter in the book about this lichen, and I nearly laughed out loud at this synchronicity that reminded me of my intention. Gladly I paused and poured out some of my water over the peeling rock tripe, took in the view, and gave thanks in my heart for this beautiful place and the chance to be here. Perfection isn’t my goal; but I can work to be better than I was yesterday.

I saw just a few other people on my way up, finally coming to a gate at the Parkway. An older man was just closing the gate behind his pickup when I jogged up; he seemed surprised to see me. I tried to explain what I was doing in such a way that he wouldn’t think I was a weirdo, but failed miserably. His eyebrows shot up when he asked and I said I’d come from Black Mountain. Trying to connect, I told him that being outdoors on such a beautiful day was a way to appreciate God’s creation. “Well, that I can see,” he allowed.

The great thing about out-and-back runs up a mountain is that eventually you turn around and head down. Gravity felt great, even though my dogs were barkin’ at this point, running on rocks the whole way. The shadowy red spruce forest was getting that late-afternoon chill, the kind that seeps into your core, so I hurried down into the bare forest where the sun could still angle through. It was a pleasant trip though I was moving faster and had to be careful not to slip on icy spots.

Before I knew it, I was back at the Crack Shack. A young couple were there with their dogs and they cheered as I loped toward them. “Hey, are you doing the marathon today? Nice work! Need anything?” They offered me a pack of Cheese-Its, which were amazing in every way. They were also surprised I’d come up from Raleigh for the day. Both had done the race multiple times. Their names were Dan and Carrie, but I told them that we were officially The Cheese-It Friends and we made plans to see each other next year. I verified the instructions, thanked them again, and headed down toward Sourwood Gap. A very steep descent on Appalachian Way and then onto the greenway at Montreat, then eventually I decided not to chance getting lost in town and went back out to Montreat Rd., where I knew the way. I finished at the lake, changed clothes, and drove into town to grab a small pizza and root beer to go before heading home. First I promised myself that I would come back; this is a seriously wonderful town and I need to spend more time there.

It’s been awhile since I’ve spent a day like this on myself. I ate a package of M&Ms one at a time to stay awake as I drove and sang along with a radio station that claimed they play everything (I believe it; it was terrible), while my legs screamed louder than Bon Jovi.

It was deeply satisfying to feel wild again, and I felt like roaring.

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!!!”

The t

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

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!

Delusions of youth at the 2012 Run at the Rock

I renamed this race Run at the Mud in 2009, the first year I did it. Andrew had gushed about this race: the hot soup at the finish, the beautiful waterfall, the fun trails. I couldn’t wait.

Well, it rained for a solid week beforehand and the only soup I saw was on the trails. Here are my memory snapshots: 1) Running in place on a hill, legs churning, feet slipping and going nowhere—guy grabs me and sets me off to the side to pass. 2) What waterfall? 3) Slogging up the hill to the finish, utterly filthy, wet and exhausted, only to hear my always-encouraging friend Steve shouting “NO SOUP STEPH!”

With that first experience it’s surprising I returned. I ran the 7 again in 2010 and then the 14 for the first time last year and loved it. Last year I had my first-ever 1st AG finish and my time was 2:01 and change, so when I signed up this year, two hours seemed like a great goal. But, I took some recovery time after Triple Lakes. Then I pretty much slacked off.

Suddenly the race was a week away. I re-adjusted my goal to try for even or negative splits (something I need to work on for the marathon distance) but after a promising set of 800s two weeks ago, I thought I’d see where I was at the end of lap 2 and set time goals from there.

I hosted the pre-race dinner again this year with two significant improvements: 1) I remembered to make the pasta, and 2) I did not melt anyone’s crock pot. I expect Martha herself to drop by any day now to induct me into the Hostess with the Mostest Hall of Fame.

Danny, Gordy, Steve, Jeff, Ken, Kerry, Shellie and I met earlier than needed to drink coffee and talk smack, then we piled into vehicles to caravan to Burlington. I was excited that this year’s t-shirts were gender-specific—same brand and cut as my Triple Lakes shirt in royal purple.

Our merry crew in our primo parking spot next to the course!

Our merry crew pre-race!

Had a chance to chat with Scott before the start of the race, and my former colleague Sandra, and say hi to a few others who I now recognize from local races. The local trail running community is a great and friendly one. However, I’m sure that the Peeps raised some eyebrows when we broke out in a chorus of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in the corral, minutes before the start.

"When You're Happy and You Know It..." What? What else are you supposed to do to kill time before the race starts?

What? What else are you supposed to do to kill time before the race starts?

The race started and I went out according to my plan—run hard down up the pavement and through the field to be well-situated when we duck into the woods. Right after you hit the single track and cross a bridge, there’s a hill where you have to slow down as you run single-file. That was crucial to my plan, because it gave me a chance to find my left lung, which I thought I’d lost in the pasture.

Me, Danny, Kerry and Jeff. All I can think when I see this is the poem: When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me. When will someone give me a pre-race fashion consult? Also: my first-time wearing of my LRTR arm thingies. I feel so hi-tech!

Me, Danny, unknown dude, Kerry and Jeff. All I can think when I see this is the poem: When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me. When will someone give me a pre-race fashion consult? At least Kerry is wearing her redneck fishin’ hat and shirt.

I like to project a fun-loving, laid-back running demeanor, but I do have a competitive streak (not to be confused with my tilting-at-windmills smack-talking for hopeless match-ups with much faster friends). It can be tough to dial back and let people pass on the first lap of a two-lap race. According to the results, 200 did the 7 miler while only 100 did the 14, so it was a good bet that many were just in for 7 miles. Or so I told myself.

The course isn’t too technical, with many runnable flat sections, including some pretty ones along the creek. The most treacherous parts involve steep, rocky descents obscured by fluffy, newly-fallen leaves. Although I know it’s foolish, I flew down some of these, because it is just that fun and yes, I have been lucky thus far. Plus, non-speedy runners like me count on gravity to save their energy/lungs for the hard hills. Gravity WORKS! Use it, friends!

Running conditions were perfect and my legs felt great. Several times I found myself gasping for breath, so I slowed down on the hills and then tried to pick it up on the flats and descents. My recent lack of hill training was evident. I also tried to make mental notes for lap 2 (some people have motivational mantras—mine are more like, “Pay attention! What mile is it again?”). I crossed the bouncy bridge to enter the mountain bike trail just past mile 5 and started an uphill slog. I knew this would be tough on lap 2, as well as the hill to the finish line.

I came up the hill and started lap 2—always a reality check as two-thirds of the runners finish amidst whoops and cheers, and spectators and 7 mile finishers steal furtive, pitying looks at those of us in for the next loop (I always imagine them making mental notes so they can provide a description to the authorities later). I also saw that I was just over an hour, and figured the two hour time goal was out of reach.

The second loop is actually my favorite…mostly alone and with fewer distractions. During the first loop your pace is largely dictated by other runners, but the second time around it’s up to you to set your pace and run your race. I let out a Wolfpack howl to Jeff and Danny, who were nearby, and tried to focus.

I lost my balance at the waterfall (which did not have much water falling) while on the right side of my friend Kerry on the angled boulder. I looked down and it was a BIG drop to the creek. I hoped the tread would hold on my shoes and kept moving. Whew.

Hit the last gravel hill and heard cheers from Steve, Shellie, and Ken, and crossed the finish line at 2:02 and some change. But, I had met my goal! I was honestly surprised, as I thought I’d been close to a 9 minute pace on lap 2.

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Lap 1, 1:01:37.

Lap 1, 1:01:37. Lap 2, 1:01:06. Right on the money!

After our crew was in safe and sound, we grabbed some hot soup (chicken noodle, yum) and headed back to the cars to change clothes. On the ground in front of the cars was an assortment of t-shirts, gloves and hats our group had tossed at the start of lap 2. THAT is what you call premium race parking.

Kerry, Steve and I had won awards, so most of our crew headed back, ate Chips Ahoy, and laid in the sun, waiting for the awards ceremony to start. The minutes went ticking by, people were dispersing, and we eventually decided to pick up our awards and head out.

I made it home and proudly showed Andrew my second-ever 1st AG award. He grinned, then said with barely restrained amusement, “Um, Steph…30-39?” I had mistakenly picked up the wrong plaque! At 41, I have been in the 40-49 age group for more than a year. I was mortified. I jumped onto the results as soon as they were posted, and contacted Shannon Johnstone in complete embarrassment about stealing her award. Fortunately, she was very nice about it and even thought it was hilarious.

She said not to bother mailing it, but how could I possibly keep this award knowing it isn’t mine? After all, my running buddies will assuredly bust my chops about it for the next year—I’ll have all the reminders I need without a plaque commemorating my foolish delusions of youth.

Nice, huh? It isn't mine.

Nice, huh? Well, it isn’t mine.

Triple Lakes Trail 40-Miler Race report: Some thoughts about running my first ultra-marathon

Writing my race report throughout the day as I ran went something like this: at mile 22, my knee started to hurt. At mile 27, other things started hurting. At mile 32, things really were hurting. At mile 34, things REALLY were hurting. At mile 36, dang, EVERYTHING WAS REALLY, REALLY hurting. Let’s face it: running an ultra-marathon hurts. You can see why a mile-by-mile race recap would not build readership for my blog, so I’ve instead collected a few tidbits. It’s rather long, but so was the race.

My running buddies Jon, Joanna, and Danny knew I was coming into this race after a tough week, and they were awesome. I can’t point to anything specific, but having understanding friends who know you are struggling helped a lot. In addition, Andrew helped me get through an incredibly hard week and encouraged me to stick with my plan of doing the race. I really appreciated all the kind thoughts and gestures from my friends, too. In the months of training leading up to this race, I covered many miles with many different friends, and I will say it again: running buddies are the best! All of this incredible support helped me get to the finish. Thanks.

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Joanna, Jon, Steph and Danny at the finish. We made it!

The trail ran through the woods and along the lake and it really was a beautiful course. The day was gorgeous. It was warm, but we were mostly in the shade and the humidity was low.

The course was a marathon loop with an added out-and-back for the 40 milers, with the turnaround at mile 19.5 (where our first of two drop bags were). The marathoners split off at mile 11, so everyone you saw beyond that was doing the 40 mile distance. And, we got to see everyone on the out-and-back segment, so it was great to see my buddies and check in with each other. Danny and I ran together off and on until the turnaround at mile 19.5, which was awesome.

The trail crossed several greenway paths, so there were all kinds of hikers and mountain bikers out on the trail who had no idea what we were doing. One family’s smiles faded into shocked disbelief after the following exchange: “Good job! How far do you have to go?” “Eighteen, I think.” “Another guy we saw said 22.” “No, that’s how far we’ve already gone.”

Steve sent us a quote from Medoc (or so he says) on Friday: “Do not assume the person in front of you knows where they are going (especially if their trail name is Ray Charles). Most likely the person in front of you is an idiot. They are just a faster idiot than you are.” Well, that ended up being quite appropriate as Danny, Joanna and I all missed the same [well-marked] turn, going straight and coming out to a road around mile 16. [Danny will try to blame this on me. But, I ran into him while re-tracing my steps, trying to figure out where the turn was that I had missed—it was behind him, so he missed that turn all by himself.]

Putting wet washcloths in ziplock bags for my drop bags at mile 19.5 and 31 was a great idea. It was so nice to wipe some of the salt and grime from my face. I was right at 4 hours at mile 19.5.

Reaching the marathon mark around 5:10 was rather demoralizing. Not because of the time, but because all I could think was, cripes, I still have to run a half marathon! Miles 27-30 were a bit tough.

The thought of Jon and Joanna discovering a pair of high-heeled shoes and a rubber chicken (among other goodies) in their mile 19.5 drop bags kept me entertained for hours (admittedly, I’m easily amused). If I ever get so serious about running and training that I don’t have time for these kinds of shenanigans, please remind me that I’ve lost my way.

It’s the little things, like putting a rubber chicken in your buddy’s drop bag, that make these races so fun!

Hitting mile 30 was awesome! After 30 miles, I would shout “WOOHOOO!” at every mile marker. I must say that I was less enthusiastic at miles 34 and 37, but I made myself do it to keep up my morale. I was mostly by myself, and my whoops echoed around the empty forest.

One section of the race went through a clearing overgrown with kudzu and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was waiting to grab lagging ultra-runners. I picked up my pace a bit.

I ran up to a doe and got really close before she saw me around mile 32. She stared for a long moment, then leapt gracefully away. I admired her ability to pick her legs up so high.

Half a mile later I found myself planning ahead for a fallen sourwood tree that was about 10 inches off the ground. I slowed down and seriously considered whether to step over it with my left or right foot. And let’s face it—I was not approaching it with anything that could be called speed.

Stubbing your toe on a root hurts. Stubbing your toe on a root at mile 35 is agonizing.

I don’t know how people run 100 miles. I can definitely see why Danny focused on 8 laps at Umstead, instead of the miles completed or remaining. It is funny how the time flies by out on the trail, though. At several points I was startled to look at my watch and see that I’d been running for 6, 7, and 8 hours. The day really flew by.

Many know that I hate Fritos but love their salty goodness on long runs. Danny put a bag of them in my mile 31 drop bag and they were awesome! I’m sorry there isn’t a photo of me running at mile 32, beaming ridiculously and holding onto a bag of Fritos. One lady out hiking exclaimed “oh my goodness, I wondered if you people ate on these runs.” Fritos: Running Food of Champions!

My biggest concerns going in were a) emotional and mental exhaustion, b) physical lack of sleep and poor eating all week, c) nutrition problems during the race. I was most afraid that I didn’t have the capacity to get through the inevitable pain of that distance. My mental preparation on Friday helped immensely—out on the trail, I felt peace and joy, and I was never overwhelmed with sadness. I kept thinking how much Suzie would have loved running on the trails, and how grateful I was to be out there.

Although I don’t know how it’s possible, I did not feel very tired during the race. I had a few bouts with a queasy stomach but nothing too bad, and ate all the way up until mile 32.

On the other hand, I was not expecting ITB problems, but both knees hurt pretty badly and by mile 33, I had a hard time running the downhills. By mile 36, I could only run the flats. I walked most of mile 38, but I wanted to run the last mile, even though you had to pass the finish, run around a pond (including a jump (!) over water—soaked my foot at mile 39.9) and up a hill to the finish.

Telling yourself you have two miles to go at mile 38 in a 40-miler is just as tough as telling yourself you have two miles to go in a marathon, a half marathon, a 10-miler, or a 10K. That second-to-last mile is always tough, no matter what the distance.

Andrew helped me put together a training plan that was very doable, and made sure I could complete all my long training runs. I think that continuing track and tempo runs, and doing hill repeats really helped my training. I think I needed to do more strength/functional training (maybe could have helped the ITB) and a bit more trail running. Today I feel pretty good—I’m sore, but surprisingly, not bad.

There were only 13 women in the 40 mile race, of 56 finishers total. I placed third in my 40-49 age group because one woman placed overall and another won master’s (I was 9th of 13 women, 39th of 56). My time was 8:50, which was a 13:16 pace. My new race strategy is to sign up for races that no one else wants to do.

This was my first race over a marathon distance, but I don’t think it will be my last!

I made it!

22 miles on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail

What a good day out on the trail looks like:

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Did my first-ever 20+ mile single-track training run today on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. I think I ran a bit farther than 22 miles. I’ve run 3 marathons, each with 20 miles as the longest training distance. Uwharrie 20 is the longest single-track run I’d done thus far (oh, and however many miles I actually ran on the Neusiok). Andrew and the boys were camping, so I had the rare luxury of time. Some friends, including my best girlfriend Ann, joined for the first six miles or so; my buddy Steve stayed in for the long haul. Great company and the miles added up.

I ran at the front much of the way, holding a forked stick out in front of me in an attempt to capture most of the spider webs which were stretched across the trail. At one point I picked off a fly, still alive and buzzing with panic, off my hat brim. It was engulfed in sticky threads, ready and waiting for a spider’s breakfast. I put it on a low-hanging branch and silently wished it luck. Yuck.

Mostly, I feel great. Did it hurt? A little bit toward the end. But I kept returning to the gratitude I felt–how lucky I was to have the gift of spending a Saturday morning doing something I love.