The morning was off to an ominous start. Fog shrouded the Blue Ridge Mountains as I rolled out of bed on Saturday morning at 4:45. Beginning my drive with directions in the passenger seat, I was feeling good and ready to run a 36 minute 10k, after all this was on trail and reported to be hilly, so I thought 6 minute pace to start and then building from there was a conservative goal.
After a few complication arriving to the course... mainly my ability to get lost no matter what; I finally made it into the parking area about 35 minutes before the start. I saw that the registration table was at the top of a hill and set off in tights and Chacos to give up my $45. After a brisk jaunt I had my number and was off back down the hill to pin up, lace up and head up the hill back to the start which was now 15 minutes away.
After the prerace warning of the hilly course ahead (including the final hill dubbed "The Rock Wall") we were about to set out on I was still expecting a 36 minute goal time. The gun sounded and we were off... 54 runners looking to be the top 10km trail runner in America, at least according to the name of the race! It did not take long before about 51 of us realized we were simply in for an ass kicking morning of brutal descents and ascents. Mile one was furious on grass and into rutted trail, screaming downhill eventually leading to a perilous drop of tricky, muddy, rock-steps.
Then came hill number one. I soon realized that I had certainly gone out way to fast and this hill was zapping me right away with every bit of its 18% grade. Up and up and up we went for a couple of minutes and we soon reached the starting area before heading out into the single track on the back side of the course. This area was gliding and enjoyable though technical and deteriorating with each passing runner (I hate to have seen what this looked like for the women). After a mile or so in this setting we reached climb number two.
This was a beast. I could not guess at the grade. I could not touch the hill in front of me... but it was pretty close! I have run Mt. Washington and Kendall Mtn. before and I am here to tell you that some of these hills in Laurel Springs, NC offered a glimpse into the hell that those races represent. It was about this time that I knew that maybe 40 minutes would be more approachable. My steps were tiny and I just knew that I was being reeled in... however, I was not; it seemed that everybody was slowing down here.
We levelled out again. Soon looping back up to the start and heading out and downhill again. This time we zoomed through a grassy knoll and around the small pond. We then continued to lose elevation and reach out farther from the finish (geographically). Reaching the final aid station at about 30 minutes I figured we were getting to about 10 minutes from finishing, with a direct run back uphill to the finish... I thought.
As we neared the top of the "final climb" we were directed back down into the forest and lost elevation over the next 1/4 mile or so. The trail was falling apart, in step with my form. Everything was sloppy at this point and I was hoping to not wrap myself around a tree. After a small climb we reached the area of hill #2 (the steep one). I expected to be sent back for round 2 but we were directed onward another 100-200 yards around the bend. Then... the left turn.
NOW... we could reach ahead and touch the ground we were to run on. The flat rocks were slick and muddy. The muddy spots were glazed by previous foot slips and offered no traction. A small group of us were trudging our way upward... slowly willing the crest to come to us. We knew it would not happen and after several slips uphill we each decided it was time to... I have to say it... walk. Yes, there it is... we walked in a 10k.
Soon enough the trail began to resort back to a profile more fitting of a "hill" and the after a short, slight incline the finish line was in sight. Finish time 51:24. A far cry from my PR, from my daily goal and from the mid race revisionist goal too. I had no idea really of my finishing place. I thought somewhere between 15th and 20th.
This morning I checked the results and it turns out the top runner finished in 39 minutes, unreal. Out of 54 runners my final standing was 18th, fifth in North Carolina USATF. The women's race was over pretty quickly despite a strong field of runners. I sat by the lake below to watch the women come down through the field and through the woods. It was a neat vantage point to hear the effort of the breathing and the footsteps pound into the ground on the descent. The front runners were ferocious in their attacks on that course! It was just awesome!