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Monday, December 12, 2011

Table Rock 50 (errr... 54...ummm 36): A Race Report

Imagine yourself sitting in your driveway, it is 4 am, you slept for 3 hours last night... and you are about to head out to attempt your first 50 mile run... you are completely unprepared, your training has been scant... about 30 miles per week; 90% of which is a weekly long effort. You jumped into this run on a whim, you have A LOT of climbing ahead of you and despite all of this you still somehow believe that you can complete the distance with a simple decision to continue on...

"I'll just keep going," you think, "how hard can this be?"

Table Rock 50 miler
As the moon settled behind a distant black mountain some 50 runners staked their spot in a gravel parking lot on the banks of Lake James for the inaugural running of the Table Rock Ultra 50m... (which is actually 54 miles). With a smattering of confusion and the rubbing of rubber on rocks we were off, a few steps into the unknown. The first few miles were pleasant, on the approach to Linville Gorge we made our way along a paved country road as the sun took hold in its battle against the chilly December wind. We reached AS#1 and hit a (pay)dirt road and with it we began climbing and kept climbing more or less for the next 30 miles.

The Hill
Despite my lack of mileage I always believe in my ability to get up a hill, no matter what, no matter how slow, I can always go up up up!! The climb up the west side of Linville Gorge is tough, and what makes it tougher is the drastic roller coaster effect of this frozen dirt road. The ups were definite walks and the downhills were okay for the energy savings but tough on the feet and legs over time on me. The pounding adds up. I did my best to save myself from early damage by slowly falling down these hills... but saving what isn't there leads nowhere fast... or in this case very slowly... very slowly.

Wiseman's View
We kept on climbing through a few aid stations until reaching Wiseman's View at mile 15.1 and our first drop bag. I happily grabbed another layer to protect me from the wind, loaded up with my spi-belt, PB&J and took a moment to prepare myself mentally for the next long stretch. I inquired as to how far we had come, and that was my first tangible hint of my true condition.

Looking across the Linville Gorge we could see Table Rock, the main feature of the area and our summit for the day... we would be travelling another 20 miles to reach that spot as we continued our trip around the gorge. By mile 19 I was feeling pretty bad... and had been feeling tired since like mile 8... so, my positive attitude was battling against reality... thoughts like:

"Come on, 19 down... only 35 miles to go!"
"Well, let's just get to the next turn..."
"Okay... can I walk again?"

As the course officials visited runners I always said, "I feel GREAT!" Did they believe that? Did I believe that? Did it make us all feel a bit better for a moment? Did it give me a laugh? Did I ask myself questions?

Somewhere around mile 21 I was caught by an angry soul. As I trudged up the road I could feel the anger in this guys steps, the pavement was cracking. I was in his cross hares and there was no getting away; my only hope was to continue in my own quiet space by slowing down further, no dice. He slowed and walked next to me... and began spouting his grievances with life in general.

Over the next 3 miles I heard about every bad thing that could ever happen to a guy... for brevity sake, here is the quick list:

  • He been lost twice today because of the (expletive deleted) course markings... He had come out here just to get away from stress and that was there was! Which was so bad because:
    • His married girlfriend had just left her husband after 5 years of their affair for..
      • ANOTHER man who was a FRIEND of his. 
    • The husband was sleeping with some old lady in the town and she was married to his ex-wife's step father... who was married now to his former boss wife.
  • ...and he was just out here today to get away from all of that!!! ARGGGHHHHH!!! I could completely understand why one would want to get away from that... I had a true appreciation.
    • I also heard about his entire employment history, his amateur athletic career, his extensive surgery records, the surgeons themselves and their reputations and legal troubles, his academic achievements and most endearing to me, an unfortunate deer which had a run in with him and his motorbike earlier this year resulting in surgery for one, death for another... 
I was feeling a bit like that wounded deer myself at this point. Eventually as we approached the next aid station he said, "well, I guess I'd better get moving... what was your name?"

I thought it generous of him to ask at least one thing about me and wished him good luck with all of that... 

The Valley of the Dogs
I made it a goal to not pass that guy no matter what might happen in his race and just keep moving. I was feeling pretty low physically and had a good deal of pain in localized areas, mainly my left leg and my right leg if we need to narrow it down. 

A quick stint on a busy road (which had me wondering if I had missed a turn) led to another big climb and a classic North Carolina hound dog haven. I was a bit worried about a few things through this 2 mile stretch. 
(1) The dogs welfare (2) My welfare (3) My legs and their welfare. There was a lot of paved downhill and I was in the cycle of running the flats and down hills, walk the climbs. I was being passed a lot through here and while it was uneventful for me I heard later that runners were actually bitten by a dog(s) in this area. Blame the owner from what I saw out there... 

The views after popping out of rhodo-roads were amazing, the entire course was beautiful NC high country and kept me going, despite the pain which was increasing by the mile. My systems were all go, stomach good, heart good, breathing good, but legs... trashed. I had just passed the marathon mark in 5:45. About halfway to the finish line and facing a LONG downhill as we were glimpsing Table Rock through the bare trees. 

I was now reduced to taking some walk breaks on the downhill sections too, I could run the flats... not much of that at this point. Somewhere in here I began smelling strawberry chapstick. I didn't have any with me and looked toward the trees to see if there was a trail nearby. There wasn't, but this scent kept coming back to me... odd, usually I smell phantom pizza on long runs. 

The General Idea

As I plodded, my peace was interrupted by a dust cloud of furry when a Toyota Corolla attempted to set the fastest known time for this portion of the road. Apparently they were successful because 1/2 a mile later I ran upon them on the side of the road, with a forest ranger presenting them some sort of document to acknowledge their achievement. The ranger asked what I knew about their driving and of course, they received my endorsement. That felt nice to be able to provide a little support. 

Table Rock- to the summit
I knew this section involved a climb, but really... 

I had covered some 32 miles and we had one mile up to the parking area... at least that is what they said, one mile... or maybe they said 5, I would have believed that. This section was paved and many runners were headed back down for their final 19 mile stretch of mostly downhill running. 

I was now in pain from the pounding of walking uphill... so that is not good. I began to seriously consider the aspect of physical training and how important it is to physical achievement. I had one mile of rocky single track to reach the summit. I grabbed my second drop bag, donned warm, dry clothes, a cup of Ramen Noodles and began the SLOOOOW trek upward. 

One step at a time was it... I was looking for hand rails, for the smallest step, an inch of height made all of the difference... runners were coming down the trail looking happy as can be! I was still happy, very happy in fact, but also knowing that this was it for me. The writing had been on the wall for 20 miles and I felt that I was facing the area where injury was in the cards should I continue on for another 19 miles of downhill. 

Reaching the summit I had my photo snapped and sat down. Now, I could see the entire course of what I had  traveled this day (including the majority of that early morning drive). The volunteers asked me how I was doing and while my answer all day had been GREAT!!!! I decided to be honest this time and answer with, "How would a guy get a ride back to the finish?" Thankfully they were about to be relieved by another volunteer and begin the sweep, and I was to be the first known casualty in the meat wagon. I trekked back down to the parking area with 35.7 miles completed and visited with the AS workers for about an hour, happy to be sitting and dry and headed to my car.

The Finish
Arriving at the finish line in a car left me feeling like an outsider, a viewer of a distant event. With the task of walking 200 yards to my car, my choice to stop was confirmed as the right one. This was the toughest part of the day... must have taken me 10 minutes to get to my warm, dry, comfortable car. 

As the sun set I point the headlight north-ish and made my way home in the dark. I had completed my longest run to date over challenging terrain. Now, it was time to sleep, and eat. In a couple of days, try running, that is training, a little bit. There just might be something to it.


  1. Sorry you had such a craptastic run, Sean, but your report actually made me laugh out loud. Not that I want you to suffer for my entertainment, but that was a very good read. Besides, you made the right call stopping when you did based on the parking lot traverse time to your car.

  2. congrats on your longest run to date! And yes, this report totally cracked me up...esp the guy's extramarital affairs story...about the need to just get away...too funny :)

  3. Why do the best race reports come from DNFs? I guess that's where we learn the most. Thanks for the entertaining report, and I hope you heal quickly.

  4. Sounds to me like you had a great day...well, at least a great day writing that report. Thanks for the laugh. Sorry you had to hear that guy's verbal diarrhea, take solice in the fact that you were a good listener.

    Weymouth is right around the corner. I'm sending you some Snail mojo!

  5. That's a really tough course allright. No easy way to get around it. At least you made it to the summit. Clearing well over 50k is still something to be positive about!

  6. Great to read your recap. The last nineteen miles, though technically downhill, we're pretty tough as well. I finished second to last and was glad to be done.


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