Love Uwharrie.

“He travels fastest who travels alone…but not after the frost has dropped below zero fifty degrees or more.” –Yukon code*


Mile 1 seemed a bit like this.

Day had broken, clear and cold, when the woman began the mile-long trek at the start of the Uwharrie Mountain Run. The sun had cleared the edges of the worn and ancient Uwharrie mountains and stared coldly upon the huddled runners at the start. The old timers spoke of the year that the five gallon water containers had frozen solid, and the crowd speculated about recent storm damage. The woman shivered in the chill and was glad when they finally started the race.

The Uwharrie Trail lay ahead for 20 winding miles. The first mile was steep, rocky, and un-runnable, but this did not bother the woman. Though not one of the old timers, she had traversed this steep trail a year before as a chechaquo, and she knew it would get better. Her shivering ceased, though her toes felt like hard lumps of quartz inside her shoes. The woman summited the ridge and flung a look over her shoulder before descending into the rollercoaster of loose rocks and steep hills that was the Uwharrie Trail.

It happened unexpectedly at the first shallow stream crossing. A solid-looking rock shifted, and the woman slipped and stepped directly in the creek. The icy water soaked up to her ankle. In this kind of cold, wet feet spelled danger, or at least a delay while she changed socks. The woman knew she must keep calm. Surely she could make it to the Mile 8 AS with only a few toes lost.

It was true what the old-timers had said, she thought to herself. You don’t venture into the Uwharries alone.


Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. I was in North Carolina, not the Alaskan Yukon, so it was 19 degrees and not 75 below. Best of all, I was surrounded by great people who made every step of the 20 mile Uwharrie run worthwhile and fun.

First, there were all my fellow Peeps who had come to the Uwharries to play for the weekend. We rented the awesome cabin, arrived before dark on Friday afternoon, and soon had a fire and pasta dinner cooking. The boys even had their own lookout tower to sleep in with their buddy Devon. Good times!

Second, there was top-notch race organization that made for smooth logistics. And third, a slew of awesome volunteers stood in the cold for hours to cheerfully proffer treats and other assistance as we ran by.

Uwharrie 20 was my favorite race of 2012 and I was excited to give it another go, now knowing what I did about the course. Really what I wanted to do was run it as hard as I could. However, I hadn’t done the speedwork and hill training to PR, and I needed to take care of my not-injured ankle with the Umstead marathon a month away.

My much smarter friends, Steve and Joanna, who were also doing  Umstead, planned to do the 20 as a training run. I didn’t say much about my own race plan, but it seemed like a really sound strategy.

However, me being me, I kept thinking that if I felt good…and if I could be careful…well, I was going to run hard.


20 mile crew at El Dorado. Photo by Ryan.

Our big 20 miler crew set out for the El Dorado Outpost with plenty of time to spare: me, Joanna, Jon, Steve, Kerry, Laurie, Diane and Stacy. Met up with Ryan, who was so enthused about being healed up and back at Uwharrie that he seemed a bit overdressed for the event in a gray suit jacket. We were soon off and slogging up the worst part of the course—the first mile. About 25% of the fast kids speed-walked (you can’t run) their way to a quarter mile detour. First time ever I’ve been ahead of Jon at the half-mile mark! He soon came flying by with the rest of the speedsters.

I was cold for a good half of the race. The Jack London inspiration hit me while I was shivering and running through a tunnel of mountain laurel near the second creek crossing. My feet were wet and my shaky hands were soaked when I refilled my hand-held water bottle. I had big ups and downs throughout the race—short periods of feeling crummy, followed by feeling great—in hindsight, I think the bad sections coincided with feeling cold. Still, I was having a blast. I love Uwharrie.


Kerry and I coming into the Mile 8 aid station. Photo by Danny.

Trail runners are awesome—many fun and funny snippets of conversation along the way. And I didn’t hold back on the whoops on the rocky, steep downhills this time. Steve and Kerry caught me perusing the cookie selection at the Mile 5 AS. Steve disappeared over the next hill and Kerry and I ran together on and off for the next 4 miles. I managed to fall twice before arriving at the Mile 8 AS. The first time I suddenly found myself lying on the ground feeling mildly surprised. The second time was more of a flying superman but neither landing seemed to result in any bad damage. Heading into the Mile 8 AS with Kerry, I got a boost seeing my friend and running buddy Danny, who drove down to surprise us all and was there cheering with Carolyn and taking photos.

Miles 10-15 I felt great and wished I’d signed up for the 40. I caught up with Steve and started catching the back of the 40 mile pack. Everyone I passed looked strong and seemed to be in good spirits. I’ll admit that I was a little jealous. At some point I passed a couple and the man said something. “Fifth female.” I stopped. “What? Are you talking to me?” He laughed. “Yep. Fifth female.” I laughed and shook my head. No freakin’ way.

Ever since my third peanut butter and jelly square at mile 11 I’d had “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” stuck in my head, and figured I’d shout/sing it as I came into the Mile 14 AS. But by the time I arrived, pb&js didn’t sound so good anymore. I grabbed an oatmeal raisin cookie instead and regretted it. No one loves cookies more than me, but I like salt when I run. I fed the rest of the cookie to the squirrels and wished for Fritos.

Hit the mile 16 hill, which was steeper and longer than I remembered. I think the stretch from mile 15 to the mile 17 aid station may be the toughest part of the course. After climbing the mountain, there’s a steep, ITB-busting descent into mile 17 and then constant up-and-down on narrow, rocky trails, where I was now jumping off every few minutes to let the 40-milers pass through on their way back.

Did I mention how much I love trail runners? Even the top 3 in the 40 were smiling, encouraging and cheering others on. I was looking for Scott, on his way to rocking his first ultra, but inexplicably passed his neon Umstead tick shirt without seeing him (he looked strong when I saw him arrive at the 20 mi turnaround).

The clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight beamed through the trees onto cups of Fritos at the Mile 17 AS. I grabbed a cup and walked up the hill, savoring the salt. My legs were starting to threaten cramps. I ran when I could but was walking many of the hills. I was glad to see the final set of colored flags and the finish line ahead.

I rolled into the finish around 3:50 and was finally glad I wasn’t doing it again in reverse. The fire felt toasty but I tore myself away to find my drop bag and change clothes. I recognized and introduced myself to Layna, “Willow” of the Trailheads, who was with Bryan (aka PT guy from Little River, now a familiar face and new friend who warned me that he would not be at Umstead if I did something stupid to my not-injured ankle).

I had to tell Willow the story of running into a couple at Eno River who mistook me for her when they saw my Triple Lakes t-shirt. “Hey, do you run with the Trailheads?” “No, I’d love to, but I live in North Raleigh so I haven’t been out there.” She turned to her husband. “You know who I thought she was, right?” “Yeah, I thought she was Willow, too. But she’s a lot thicker than Willow.” DANG. You just can’t keep a conversation like that to yourself. Too funny not to share.

We had a great rest of the day on Saturday. Heard about the 8 mile race (with its own starting fiasco) from Andrew, Bob and Missy, and admired their pottery. The foam roller was passed around, ankles were wrapped and iced. The boys had a grand time with Devon playing in the woods and constructing forts and weapons. We found some more Trailheads at the adjoining cabin with whom to share stories, food, and fire, and just enjoyed a great evening hanging out with friends old and new.


Peeps and Trailheads enjoying the campfire on Saturday night, post-race.

On Monday I found out that the guy I’d passed was right and I’d somehow placed 5th OA female despite a slower time than 2012. I know I gained several places because of the early detour by the speedsters, but it was still pretty cool to finish so near the top (with an 11:30 pace—that pretty much sums up Uwharrie). And, the Peeps tied for 4th place in the team competition, of 10 teams! Rock and roll, Peeps!

I can’t wait to go back. Who knows what next year will bring?

*Admiration and apologies to Jack London, 1908. “To build a fire.” First published in The Century Magazine, v. 76.

2012 Uwharrie Mountain 20 Mile Run Report

(With apologies to Robert W. Service)

There are strange things done in the Piedmont sun
By the runners who are feeling so bold;
The Uwharrie trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;

The steepest hills and some ugly spills
Plus rocks and creeks ‘fore you’re done;
It all comes down to a battle of wills
On the Uwharrie Mountain Run.

I had some goals and they had some holes; I had no time in my plan
From everything I’d been hearing I’d just run as hard as I can
I didn’t want to go wrong, and I hoped to run strong from the start until the finish
And not to fall, or hit the wall, and watch my energy diminish.

Now the first mile or so went pretty slow, and I wondered if the hill would end
As we hiked along I said to Danny “this really sucks, my friend.
I don’t like at all this endless wall of folks slogging up so steep.”
And he said “better be patient, Steph, ‘cause if you run this now you’ll weep.”

And this is the end of the poem, folks, because rhyming makes me queasy;
The night’s come to stay and I’ve still lots to say but thinking now ain’t easy.
I tried and tried, but I’m pretty fried, and I’d like to get to bed
So it will have to be prose from here on out, ‘cause I’m not about to bend.

I had an awesome run on Saturday.

I didn’t have a time goal and it was nice not to have that pressure. Don’t get me wrong—Uwharrie was an A race for me and all those hill repeat workouts were for good reason! My goal was to run strong and immerse myself in the whole experience. By running strong, I wanted to keep a smart pace and not do what I’ve done for both of my marathons—that is, run too hard early on and then lose steam at the end. I really had no idea what to expect, time-wise, so I just left it out of the plan altogether. It was a good move.

There was a great atmosphere at the race. Joanna, Danny, Jon and I hopped on the shuttle bus with a bunch of sleepy runners, sat in the back and joked around all the way to the start. We were in high spirits and relaxed, but excited. At the start we had to check in again so they could account for everybody, then we hung out by a toasty fire waiting for the start. The 40 miler was delayed by 20 minutes or so, so we just glimpsed Melina as she was taking off on her way to placing 4th female in the 40 miler.

Any worries I had about starting too fast were put to rest at the start, as we immediately jumped on the trail and started a mile-long, rocky, uphill slog. Blergh. Oh, let me illustrate with the course elevation map (both the 8 mile and 40 mile course followed this as well—the 40 milers turned around and went back—can you imagine?):

Hahaha! Nope, no running that first mile. I was cold and impatient and a little annoyed to be in this huge crowd of people, but we finally reached the top and began the run.

The aid stations were incredible. I had a hard time leaving the first one, with all the great food they had. I finally figured out a strategy—take my water bottle top off coming in, hand it over for quick refill of water (the volunteers were amazing), grab a ¼ peanut butter and jelly sandwich, look for the homemade cookies (banana chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin were the kinds I had), and move on. I’d then walk for a bit while I ate and drank, then eat the last few bites on the run. I wished for a race photographer at these points, so my MyTrainLocal page could have a photo to illustrate my bio (“I like to run trails and eat cookies”). Indeed.

Many of the uphills as Joanna mentioned were super-steep, and I walked any that seemed steep to save my legs. The downhills were crazy fun and the flats were fun too. I had to hold back from whooping a few times. The course was more technical than any other I’ve done—very rocky in places, steeper and longer hills, numerous stream crossings. Fun! Miraculously, I only turned my ankle once and never fell. I credit that to luck and Larisa Lotz’s functional fitness class and the balance and strength moves I’ve learned from her. No ITB pain either–yes!

Somewhere after mile 8 I picked a sight line to rock-hop across a creek when the woman behind me yelled “Don’t cross! Don’t cross!” as she stayed on the same side and headed up the trail ahead of me. Drat. I screeched to a stop but my concentration was broken: I missed my next rock and jumped into the creek, so my feet were soaked for the rest of the run. It was good to get it out of the way, actually, because after that, I consistently passed people at creek crossings by splashing through. There was nothing more than ankle-deep and a bit of mud.

The winter landscape of Uwharrie was beautiful. Without leaves, you could see the landforms and some views. I’d love to go back in May to see all the mountain laurel in flower. The Uwharries are an ancient, worn down mountain range, and I noticed differences in the rocks in different sections, with bright white quartz along one section. And there is just something thrilling about a point-to-point run in a winter landscape that gives you the feeling that you are covering some significant distance. It was wicked.

I have to mention mile 16, because most of the afternoon on Friday that’s about all I heard about from Danny and Joanna. Since I don’t have a Garmin and there are no mile markers, I was tracking miles through the aid stations at miles 5, 8, 11, 14, and 17. They were right—mile 16 cut to the left and then went vertical. But I was expecting it and wasn’t fazed—I just slowed to a walk and did a steady quick step heading to the top. Summiting and blowing down the back side of it sure was fun.

I was having a blast and felt great, so I kept picking up the pace on the downhills and flats even though I worried about my legs burning out. I ended up running slightly negative splits, which I still find surprising. I met my goal! Toward the end I passed a guy at a creek crossing and he said “I guess you’re thinking about those cookies at the finish” and I laughed. If only he knew! After the mile 17 aid station my calves started threatening to cramp, but I told them sternly they had just 3 more miles to run and there would be no whining.

At some point the 20 milers started catching up to the back of the 40 mile pack. These folks were such an inspiration—here I was more than halfway to the finish and they had hours and hours still ahead of them. Most of those I passed looked strong and steady and in good spirits. The weather was perfect—not too cold, but overcast with some steady rain at times. I can only imagine how hard it would be to turn around at the end of 20 miles and head back.

I pulled into the finish to see some of our 8 milers, awesome spectators, and Jon warming themselves by the fire. Not long after, my super-awesome running buddies Danny and then Joanna came in, as thrilled and excited as I was about the experience, and we swapped stories as we waited for the shuttle and headed back. I know that trail running is supposed to be for the rugged individualist types (and I understand the appeal of that too), but it was awesome to be there with friends.

Big shout-out to all my training buddies (you know who you are) who made it through the 12(000) days of Christmas (admittedly, not all on my plan), track workouts, hill repeats, tempo runs and trail runs. You all made me look forward to every workout and put 100% into each one. Y’all rock. And of course my talented coach and awesome husband, Andrew, who not only wrote me a great training plan (which I mostly followed), but also made sure I could get in my workouts. Now I just have to figure out how to pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cookies on my race belt for the upcoming Umstead marathon.

Uwharrie: I can’t wait to go back!

Happy Runnerpeeps post-race: Danny, Steph and Jon. Great day!

Postscript: This was my first Uwharrie race and so I had no idea how I might place. I was surprised and thrilled to place 9th overall female. I would have been first Master’s if they had recognized age categories. As someone typically in the top third in road races, it was surprising and exciting to do so well.