Here in the High Country we are blessed with many difficult races. The difficulty stems directly from our place in the Blue Ridge Mountains. While it is often difficult to find fast courses close to home, there is plenty for the runner looking for an experience beyond the watch and within the place where doubt challenges optimism.
The Cub's History
One of these races is The Cub (dubbed so in respect to the 5 mile hill climb on Grandfather Mountain in July, The Bear). This 7 mile course begins tamely enough- a cuddly little comfortable road winding through the Watauga River valley. Soon enough the course matures adding little ripples teasing the runner's legs and soul. The unprepared are in for trouble when The Cub reaches its adolescent stage around mile 4.
Here the course climbs drastically for about a mile. At points you just know this grade is not possible, that surely this cannot last. Only 10 minutes ago this was a cruise. A false summit fools many a first timer, with a comfortable aid station begging you to stop. When the course does give way, the bottom falls out completely. The runner is left with a severe, one mile descent where the options are turnover, or rollover,literally... Finally you reach the Watauga River once again for a painfully flat final mile which features the same cruise terrain you began on; though now the will has been taxed. A matter of minutes has turned the world on its head. You reach the end of the loop course a different person than when you left. The Cub has either matured you, or broken you.
High Country Triple Crown
The Cub is the second in the 3 race series of the High Country Triple Crown. Points are totalled by total time over the three race series. I was sitting in 3rd place after the Valle Crucis 25k in April. A distant lead of 4 minutes was held by Brian, with Andy in second (2 mins back) I trailed Andy by 2 minutes and then followed by Sam four minutes behind me. Brian and Sam were lined up on Saturday morning with no sign of Andy. So, with an apparent shift in the standings, I knew I was tasked with keeping Sam close enough to maintain a decent lead going into the final race of the series, the 2 mile, 1000ft hill climb up Howard's Knob in early October... but we had business to conduct here first.
With the command the race was on. Early on the race felt like a long training run. A group of ten settled in behind Brian, the points leader. We were waiting for someone else to make a move. The large group eased into mile one at 6:17, well off the anticipated pace of 5:45. Mile two brought a little bit more urgency, and the first small climbs which broke the pack into two. 5 runners remained up front as we reached the marker in 5:57.
Division from Labor
Brian began asserting himself at this point, but he was not to be a solo runner. Sam had trained very well and looked very strong running shoulder to shoulder with him. They maintained a 20 second gap on the 3-5 runners. I was in this pod of 'chasers' hoping to keep the front of the race in sight. Every half mile the 3rd spot changed hands. I ran tangents as best I could as the attitude of the course began flaring up with more aggressive climbs followed by flat and quick downhills for recovery. After mile 3 Brian and Sam were off the front leaving me with one other racing for 3rd and another runner about 20 seconds back in 5th. Mile 3- 6:07.
Sharpening the Claws
Knowing I we were entering the crux of the race I enjoyed the last few hundred yards of cruising, settling my mind for the climb ahead. The small relaxation in pace allowed the 3rd spot to change hands. I sat a few strides back entering the overhanging trees and soaking in the shade as the morning fog layer had burned away.
"Quick feet, efficient arms, stay upright- Do Not rush this hill... it's a grind..."
Climbing while running is a test in patience. With a 10 minute hill you need to be strong-willed enough to allow the hill to come to your effort. If you can hone in on the mood of the hill and match your fitness to it, then you are in a good place. The first third should leave you only slightly fatigued. We reached mile 4 and I had taken the third spot back with a 6:34.
Taking a Healthy Bite
Just after the 4 mile mark The Cub gets angry. Each stride gains about 2 feet of linear distance while sucking the energy from every cell of your being.
"Stay aerobic- stay aerobic... good form, you are strong!"
With the top of the hill in sight, it is tempting to "go for it" in one big push. On this course that is deadly. The aid station just above your head, seemingly close enough to touch is only a small saddle. During this stretch the young runner in 4th overtakes me and asserts his will toward the aid station and the brief flat portion of running. Within 10 steps the course resumes its climb, taking an even more impressive grade for about 600 yards to the ultimate high point of the course just before 5 miles. As we crest the hill I can see that the other runner is in severe pain and I put in a crest surge going by him with decisive action. Mile 5- 7:33.
As steep as the climb was, this decent gives it all back in about half the distance. The front runners are out of sight now and I dare not look behind to see where the fourth place runner is. For one I don't want to know, and second I don't want to give any traction to hope. The paranoia can be useful causing the mind to give a little more gas now. It is a gamble that could cost in the final 800m but I believe in running hard to tax the pursuers. Also, I was definitely thinking about the 4 minutes series gap I had on Sam at this point. I had to preserve as much of that as I could. I figured one minute gone was acceptable, but 2-3 minutes was too much. So press on was the only thing to do.
As the Earth continued to fall away toward the Watauga River I did my best to let the turnover happen. The work required to keep up with gravity is surprisingly taxing to the body's ability to process lactate. I was burning inside and knew that with over a mile to go I needed to back down slightly to run a solid final mile on the flat road. Mile 6- 5:08.
Over the River- to a Land Unseen
Reaching the single lane bridge over the peaceful Watauga means you are almost home. We all know though- that almost done in a race is about the furthest from being done as you could ever feel. Making the final climb I push a little harder, pump the arms and fix the goal in mind. It is time to stretch it out and find the limits.
1200m meters to go and a small rise in the road creates tunnel vision and searing in the extremities. The lungs are heaving to keep up with the demands the spirit is creating. Training has allowed this high level of physiological adaptation, somehow this seems to only compound the pain. The amount of work able to be performed creates such a deficit that max effort only ever becomes more difficult with increased fitness. All that changes is the speed associated with it, and the mind's ability to accept the discomfort- eventually, when running your best, this feeling is the most true comfort you can know as a runner.
600m to go now. I can see the finish area and I see Sam as well. I know that I am about a minute behind him. The final stretch of CTR10k comes back to me, where the winner had run EVERYBODY in for the final 200m of their race. I take his advice from that day, to drive the arms, it hurts, intensely... but knowing it is right leaves no room for bargaining. I run through barriers of doubt, ignoring them like paper walls. Each one dissipates...
"It's okay- you did fine, back off..."
POW!! onto another powerful stride! Faster!! Better!!
"Your healthy and strong- slow down a little- it'll feel so much better, it's fine..."
BOOM!! Faster !!! This is better... so much better!
200m now to go. These negative thoughts continue to bubble up- as if being released under the pressure of the moment. They are making their final futile attempts to corrupt me- but something greater is there and I am not considering the taunts of mediocrity. This acute culmination of effort is required to remove that garbage of the mind.
GO!!! Now GO!!! Run through the Line!! Down to the chute, every molecule of ability being used to its maximum. With fear and doubt overcome, I stumble through the chute completely satisfied with this particular 43+ minutes of my life as a runner.
Adversity is Opportunity
As runners we cannot ask for more from ourselves than the opportunity to stare down the demons of doubt and dismiss them favoring achievement instead. No matter our speed over the Earth, how that trivial detail stacks up to those around us, if we can triumph over our doubts, the voice telling us "no", offering its convenient excuses, if we can be our best versions of ourselves... then we can continue believing in humanity, we can provide small measures of hope.
From what I have seen, this is how hope comes to us, in such small doses that we have pay attention in order to savor them... before they escape unseen.