The way ultrarunning used to be?
“Awesome”, said Matt Silva when he received his number at check-in. The number was a recycled Turkey Trot 5K number, presumably straight from Ray K’s 2008 race participation inventory.
Every race number was that way and every single one was unique. It was classic and in stark contrast to the new, white numbers runners get at most races.
Already, the race had character.
Standing on the starting line, which consisted of a line in the dirt that Ray K drew with his shoe, I was 100% clueless. None of us Crowders newbies had any idea what to expect.
Robert Youngren would be proud.
There was no race web site complete with race instructions, course maps, race reports, nor course descriptions – nothing.
Just a printable application, and a warning that they “reserve the right to refuse anyone who they don’t like from running in this race.”, and that’s it.
So standing at the base of Crowders Mountain everyone was sorta wondering what was about to happen, and just before the start, a female sheepishly spoke up and asked Ray K, “is the course hard?”
“it’s not impossible…”, he said.
Why not start with two miles of climb?
Ray said go, and the field of 16, or so, started the tromp up an inclined gravel jeep road.
It took me about 3 switchbacks to figure out the beginning of the race was going to be an uphill grind, straight to the top of Crowders Mountain. “Betta’ back off a little, this could go on for awhile”
It’s roughly two miles to the top, with some very steep patches – but all I could think about was the upcoming White River 50 miler and how I need experience with as many of these long climbs as I can find.
We ran to the top, danced across a rock garden near the communications towers, and began a steep and drastic downhill, including 588 steps built into the mountain.
A chance to open it up
After climbing up and over Crowders, we took a hard left (thanks Mike Day for not letting me drift off), and dove into some rocky, rooty, rolling single-track trail.
Push off a rock, leaping to another rock… stutter-stepping roots, …mountain-bike type whoop-di-do hills, all tons and tons of fun for me. I really picked up the pace here. The weather was cool, the terrain technical and fun, and I was feeling fantastic.
Here’s where I want to applaud Sam and Ray, the RDs, for somehow providing EMTs, park officials, and law enforcement as aid station volunteers. This was incredible and a total first for me. More volunteers than runners, I think. Every single aid station was manned by someone tactical, radio-in-hand, and genuinely interested in the race success of the runners.
Each station consisted of just the bare essentials – water, Gatorade, ice, potato chips, and Fig Newtons.
Again, how I picture ultra races in the early years.
Pay attention, ’cause it’s out-n-back
Which I didn’t really do, and paid for it later, but we’ll get there in the story shortly.
The approach to the ridgeline trail was another gravel jeep road and here is where I may have had one chance to capture second place. I could see the #2 runner up ahead of me, but he was moving pretty well, and faster than me.
I lost him about as soon as I saw him.
The ridgeline trail was awesome. Lots of steep downhill running, beautiful foliage and nature all around …including pollen, and nice, wide-open single-track.
I still felt awesome, had a smile on my face, and was really enjoying the morning.
I love gettin’ my Tarzan on.
And before I knew it, there’s the sign designating two miles to the Visitor’s Center (Kings Mountain, maybe?).
This visitor’s center is the halfway point where 30K runners end their race, and 60K runners turn around and run the course backwards.
My carpool buddy, Matt, easily won the 30K in 2:17, and was there volunteering for the 60K runners.
Matt offered tons of encouragement, filled up my bottle, challenged me to catch the #2 guy, and shuffled me out of the aid station to prevent possible floundering.
30K down, 30K to go
I love halfway points.
Up until the halfway point, I always seem to count up in miles, but after the halfway point, I always count down. It helps me mentally and emotionally, I think.
And I needed help.
I have no idea what happened, but I went from feeling fantastic, to complete and total crap in less than two miles. The mile before and after the turn-around is extremely nice single-track that cruises along a creek, with lots of greenery, and LOTS of boy scout hikers. They kept encouraging me, telling me I wasn’t too far behind the 2nd place guy, and to “run hard”.
Great group of kids.
But dancing around them was unusually fatiguing for me – kids with heavy packs aren’t as agile as they could be, and I found myself starting and stopping and running off-trail since these water trails were so thin and the foliage so thick.
By the time I reached that same two mile sign, only now coming back, my legs seized up, my head went a little fishy, and I had to walk.
What goes up, must come down
Having to walk made me mad.
Worse, I’m already aware of my race idiosyncrasies and my habit of second-guessing myself during the middle portions of a race, so I start complaining to myself about so many back-to-back races lately, and “who do I think I am”, and wah wah wah…
…then Mike Day comes up behind me, extends his hand, and says, “Mike Day”, and I, being an insecure, sorry-ass, immediately start making excuses as to why I am now falling into fourth place.
He shuffles on, outta sight, and I’m still struggling, now feeling the intensity of the rising temperature, and trying to take inventory on my recent Scaps usage and fluid intake.
I couldn’t keep a thought and reasoning skills were not there – Not a good sign.
I walked about 1/2 mile and figured my wife would have me walking all day Sunday anyway, so I might as well pick up the pace and start running again.
It felt good to get the legs moving again.
“You must have rocks in your head”
Remember, earlier in the story, when I went on and on about the downhill running? Well, I was paying the piper on the way back.
I was sorta running on autopilot.
I was tired, but running anyway. I couldn’t really think very well, but ignorance was bliss at the time since too much reasoning might have caused me to slow again.
It was hot, and getting hotter by the hour.
I was noticing odd behavior by the EMT volunteers when I’d leave an aid station.
“why is that dude on the radio”, I thought to myself as I left one of the aid stations.
“hope he’s not talking about me”
Turns out he was.
Apparently, these guys were radioing back and forth and reporting on the condition of runners, especially necessary as the heat started kicking in.
I guess my reports weren’t too good, and as I found out later, Ray K had even thought for a moment I might be dropping.
At one station, the EMT asked me to sit down.
He made follow a pen, with my eyes, side to side.
I passed, I guess, and he let me leave, but not before saying, “that boy must have rocks in his head.”
Next aid station… “Are you sure you don’t want to stop for a minute?”
“No, sir, it’s hot and I just want to finish”, I said with a smile and handful of potato chips. “Which way to the trail?”
It was right in front of me.
Road to recovery, trail-style
And just like that – like just about every race I do, I came alive.
Earlier, I had regained 3rd place, and got a lift from that, but now I was running the last 6-8 miles as hard as I had run in the beginning. I didn’t want Mike Day to catch me, and kept looking back at the top of every climb.
I sort of kicked into this weird, arm-circle, rhythmic run that seemed to keep me moving at a good clip with minimal exertion. It felt really nice and pleasant, and although I was tired, I was sure I was going to be able to run strong to the finish.
More hiker encouragement, more recognizable turns and landmarks, more excitement at getting close to Crowders Mountain again – all contributed to my improving state of mind and being.
…and then the steps.
A steep climb and 588 steps
The race director, Sam, his wife, and a few others were hanging around the last water stop, but I cannot, for the life of me, remember anything that was said or done at this aid station. I just remember drinking two large cups of Mountain Dew, and making my way towards the steep climb, and the 588 steps built into the mountain.
And yes, I counted each and every step. (however, I cannot confirm my accuracy)
At the top of the steps, there’s still a little more rock climbing to get through, with some technical rock gardens to negotiate, but I was feeling home-free.
Only two more miles to go and it’s all downhill from here.
Downhills are the devils of ultrarunning
The jeep road from the top of Crowders Mountain to the bottom is long, steep, and fast.
My quads and calves were screaming, causing me to scream out every now and then myself, and ask every single passing hiker, “how far to the bottom, dammit?”
I was getting a little grouchy.
But sure enough, I see the picnic tables, and Ray K standing at the make-shift finish line, holding his watch and counting down to sub-7.
6:59:33 – good for third place and finishing just about where I wanted.
A race, or a gathering?
This felt more like a gathering than a race. Ray K is one of the most colorful and entertaining characters in the sport, and I was honored to participate in the event. Sam Baucom, and his wife, did a tremendous job ensuring that the runners were well taken care of, without adding a bunch of unnecessary fluff.
The EMTs and other volunteers were priceless, the course was challenging, the other runners were all class acts, and the weather was gorgeous, albeit a bit a hot for my level of 2009 heat acclimation.
I think the single element making this course as tough as it is comes down to the easier sections near the turn around. How a runner manages these easier sections is important because miles 24 and later, are really, in my opinion, the most difficult sections in the race.
Hope I’m not giving away the secret.
See ya next year.