Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Monday, May 21, 2018

2018 Pisgah 55.5K/71.6K

Pisgah Productions is a company that primarily puts on mountain bike races in (of course) the Pisgah National Forest. They do, however, have two foot races. One is an adventure race where you are given five checkpoints and its up to you to figure out the fastest way to get to all five. The other race is billed as a 55.5K and its run at the same time and on the same course as a mountain bike race--though the runners start after the bikers.

Doug Thompson had asked me about doing this race several months earlier. The price was $30 (which is like some 5Ks these days) and timing-wise it fit my schedule. I hadn't seen Doug in a while and figured it would be a good chance to catch up. I figured I'd just run with him rather than try to race the event and after the prior week's Pitchell DNF (45 miles) I was not in the mood to race anyway.

Hanging Around the Start/Finish Area Pre-Race
In an ordinary year, the runners start five minutes after the bikers. Swollen creeks and trail issues meant last-minute changes for this year's event. We were going to be bussed to a new starting location that was actually the same spot as aid station three would be later in the race. There were other course changes as well, but this one meant that instead of starting at 10:05 a.m., we started at 10:42 a.m. The only reason I could figure for the late start (meaning why were we starting a race at 10:00 a.m. instead of 7:00 or 8:00) was because they had another, longer race the day before and maybe needed time to recover. When we checked in, we were told about 30 people had signed up for the run, a pretty big increase over prior years. It's mostly a mountain biker event, though their numbers--maybe 50 riders--seemed down from other years' results. A quick headcount on the bus came up with 21 people actually showed up. The weather forecast of a warm day, interrupted by thunderstorms in the later afternoon may have scared some off.

On the ride up to the start, the guy who did the reroutes said he didn't know how much distance the changes might have added but that he thought the course might be easier/faster than the regular course. They gave us each a "cue sheet" which I believe is a mountain bike term, that had the turns on it, but it did not have any distances to the turns. It seemed geared more for locals who knew all the trails and just needed to know where to turn. Again, this is primarily a mountain bike race and we were "along for the ride."

Getting Some Last Minute Instructions
The start was pretty informal as we all made our way down the gravel road. The course is a lollipop route but we would not be starting on the bottom of the "stem" like usual, we were starting about three miles before the end of the loop and would be doing the loop first, then repeating those same three miles before heading down the "stem" to the finish. The runners spread out pretty quickly and we would seldom encounter anyone else during the race. Doug and I settled into his pace and just made our way through the woods. 

The website said the aid stations were about ten miles apart. This was for the regular course, but we figured that essentially meant miles 10, 20, and 30. The site also showed a profile of the course that had the actual distance at 36.6 miles. Having nothing else to go on, we just took those numbers as somewhat accurate for the modified course.

They were not somewhat accurate. Though we didn't have any issues staying on course--the flags were sometimes fairly far apart, but there were seldom intersections and those were well marked--we reached mile 10, 11, and 12 and still had not seen the aid station. We knew it was on a small "detour" section of trail that would take us to a parking lot. Access was pretty limited on this course with the aid stations at some of the few places where the trails met Forest Service Roads. We knew we were on course, but were really beginning to wonder if we had somehow missed that detour section and continued on around the loop without going to the aid station. Finally, around mile 14, we saw someone stationed at the turn who was to direct us toward the aid station. Aid station one came at about mile 14.75. We were not low on water or anything, but it started us wondering if the rest of the course might be longer than planned. The volunteers at the aid station were friendly, but not much help on knowing the distance to the next aid station. Some of their uncertainty was because there was a change in the course between aid stations one and two. We left the aid station believing the next one lay somewhere between ten and fifteen miles away--the best guess we could get from the volunteers.

Through most of the course, the trail varied wildly between gravel road and very technical single track. There were a lot of creek crossings, but only one deep enough to threaten to reach our shorts. When we started the day, Doug had an expected finish time of around nine hours--ten if there were issues. We were already questioning both of those estimates. Beyond the shoe-sucking mud, and creek crossings, there were many times you were simply running in water that was coming down the trail. The heat and humidity were noticeable but not terrible, but that was an issue soon resolved by a thunderstorm that rolled in around 3-4:00 p.m. It was not a "black cloud" storm of fury and you could somewhat see the sun in the distance. The lightning was the flash kind and not the bolts, which made it a little more comforting as we approached a ridgeline as thunder pealed around us.

Aid station 2 came about a mile earlier than expected, at mile 23.5. This station had a little more food than the first had. I grabbed some of the potato chips and Chex mix and Doug had some bacon--even pocketing a piece for the road. We knew we were near but not at the back since we encountered some runners coming toward us when we did the detour to the first aid station. Doug had put a Ziploc drop bag at this station with a soft drink and some ice in it. These volunteers seemed to have a better idea of what we'd face between them and aid station 3. One of them told us we'd be following the road down a very short stretch and then have a six mile section of mostly uphill technical trail, we'd make a left and then have about two miles back down technical trail, pop out on the same Forest Service road we were on now and have a short run to the aid station. We figured ten miles worst case scenario. I clarified and asked him if we "missed" that turn to the trail, we'd be heading straight down the "much easier" gravel road to aid station 3. He laughed and said yes if you "accidentally" miss the turn you'd be taking the direct route. He also added that it was an option if we were running out of gas and just wanted to get done. Tempting as it might be, we wouldn't take that route. We thanked them and headed on.

Looking A Bit Worn From Recent Long Runs
This time, the volunteer was pretty accurate with his estimates. The actual climb was a little more than six miles and the descent was a little more than two miles, but it would end up being about a 9.4 mile section between aid stations. We were at (by my GPS) 32.85 miles. Coming down that last section before the aid station, we got our only view of the day, looking out over forested hills and a cloud blanket below us. We also saw the last of the daylight fade away as we completed our descent. For some reason, I had tossed my headlamp into my car that morning and Doug told me we were required to have it if we reach aid station three after 6:00 p.m. Not knowing what might happen, and having room in my pack, I had it on me, but I had not recharged it since last week's Pitchell, meaning It had been used for maybe seven hours already.

Aid Station three was all but broken down when we arrived. The drop bags were still out but Doug couldn't find his. He didn't have anything of true value in it, but he did have some chocolate milk (on ice) that he was looking forward to. Somewhat dejected, we continued on, turning on our headlamps as we left the aid station. I noticed Doug's was dim when he turned it on. After a couple hundred feet, he commented on it and I looked again and it was completely off. Presuming it to be dead and not thinking to check for loose batteries, we just continued on with only my headlamp. This worked fine on the gravel roads but was more difficult on the single track and even worse on the technical single track.

Doug felt like we had about six miles to go but I was skeptical because I was remembering the map and how long the "stem" of the lollipop course was in relation to the loop. It looked like it was over six miles by itself and we had several miles to go between the aid station and when we got onto the "stem." Though we had run this same section earlier in the day, parts were unfamiliar. It was hard to see the orange flagging with just one headlamp focused on the ground and an occasional mist making visibility a bit worse. The unfamiliarity grew increasingly concerning the further we went. We knew we'd recognize the intersection where, instead of turning left as we had in the morning, we'd go right, but we just seemed to be running much farther to get there than we had earlier. Of course we were moving slower now due to some fatigue and darkness, but where was this intersection and where had all this uphill come from?

We finally reached it and Doug was feeling there were only a few miles left now. I maintained my doubt. On we went. Up and down on more trail. We knew what we had left in terms of turns and roads, just not distance. We reached the gravel road we'd been hoping for since it meant we could move a bit quicker. Our next turn would be at a "horse stable" onto another gravel road. So, down we went. And went. And went. The miles were adding up with no sign of a stable--or any side road--in sight. My headlamp was noticeably dimming and the only other light source we would have if it gave out would be the light on my cell phone. The 12 hour cut off came and went and we were still racking up the miles--albeit slowly. We finally did come to an intersection with another Forest Service Road, but the number didn't match the one we were looking for. I pulled out my cell phone and turned on the GPS to see where we were in relation to Highway 276--the road the finish was on. It showed us in the center of the screen and the highway roughly to our southwest. I looked at the compass on my watch and it indicated that southwest was the direction we had been heading down the gravel road so we continued on. We had been moving only a few minutes when we heard a hum behind us and then saw a light. It was a cyclist. When he got closer, we realized he was the sweep (he had a batch of the orange flags.) Doug told him we might be lost, but he said we were on the correct road and that the horse stables were about 100 yards ahead. Our mileage was already around 41 (though at the time, my GPS had made an error and we thought we were at 44) so we were already about five miles over the distance we thought the course was. He told us it was probably 2-3 miles to Highway 276 and then maybe a half to one mile to the finish. At the pace we'd been maintaining, that could be another hour.

We ran some, though it was not a brisk run and the sweep hung with us. He had a very strong light attached to his bike that more than compensated for Doug's lack of a headlamp and my swiftly-fading light. It was fortunately closer to two miles when we reached Highway 276 and started the home stretch down this deserted strip of asphalt. There was little to see aside from the Pisgah Ranger Station and the bright blue beacon of a Pepsi machine in the picnic shelter behind it. Shortly after passing the Ranger Station, we could see lights in the distance and soon after that we could hear the sound of a cow bell being rung earnestly. We turned off the highway into the start/finish area and shuffled over to the steel finish arch. We were given a Pisgah 55.5K patch for completing the course, despite being roughly two hours over the cutoff. Even better, they had saved us each a veggie burrito. We were both hungry and had been concerned about what might be open in the area at this late hour. We sat and talked with the race director and his crew for a little bit but we needed to start the two hour drive home and they needed to shut down the finish line so we simply thanked them and headed to my car.

There were a lot of drops in the race--one person said half the bikers dropped at the first aid station and we figured that anyone behind us had dropped since we were finishing with the sweep. So that left us in last place--a spot I haven't been since sweeping Peak to Creek Marathon one year. I honestly didn't mind being last or the extra mileage so much as the hour of finishing. Had the race started at 7:00 a.m. instead of 10:42, we'd be finishing around 9:00 p.m. instead of well after midnight. Of course, we'd have gotten up earlier to get there, but this would mean getting home around 3:00 a.m. and a very short night of sleep with Monday being the next day.

Here is a link to my corrected map of the course. I could only correct the sections along the roads since I couldn't follow the trail in the woods.

Monday, April 16, 2018

2018 Jordan Lake 12-Hour Challenge

With Lee already committed to going and the Black Mountain Monster 6/12/24 Hour moved into June, I decided to return to the Jordan Lake 12-Hour Challenge and see what the new course was like. With less climbing than the previous course we had run in 2016, it was billed as a faster course and it was a smaller loop of about 1.35 miles versus 2.93 miles in 2016. I was unsure if the smaller loop would be a good thing or if it would make the route get repetitive much sooner. That said, it was still longer than the .985 mile loop at Freedom Park New Year's Eve Ultra I did twice in 2011 and 2013. Like in prior years, the event raises money for the Chatham County Partnership for Kids. In today's world of $75 half-marathons, that much for a 12-hour run seemed very reasonable. While they only had to manage the one aid station, it was a long commitment for the volunteers. The shirt was a very nice weight and color with a modest (thankfully) logo. I am going to have to do better about selecting small, though as mediums seem to have gotten bigger over the years. 

The loop itself, I soon broke down into four short segments, which would help me push through in later miles as I took it one segment at a time rather than one loop at a time. From the start, we wound through the pines and picnic tables and onto some fresh, loose gravel. We emerged and had a fairly flat straightaway on parking lot gravel and a dirt maintenance road where spare curbing and equipment was being stored. What I called section two was a stretch that ran downhill toward Jordan Lake in a field. It was very exposed to the sun here, with no tree cover. Section three ran parallel to Jordan Lake and had two hills here that were not long or terribly steep, but as the race wore on, they became the first walking spots. The final section was a windy stretch of flat trail through the pine forest back to the finish area. There was nothing truly technical about the course with the toughest footing probably being the loose gravel in the first section.

Because the new course was not in the State Park, we would not be able to camp pre-race. This was a little bit of a letdown since the closest sites (in the Park) had water views. But, there was no guarantee the gate would be open for us to get to the 7:00 start if we camped inside the Park. So, a brief Expedia search pointed me to Chapel Hill, about 25 minutes away. I selected the University Inn on Fordham Boulevard and upon arrival I quickly realized that Leslie, had she come, would have not been happy with the room. When I told Lee and Phyllis about it at the race, her comment, "So, you wouldn't want to have a blacklight there?" pretty much summed up my impressions. I did take advantage of its proximity to one of Leslie's favorite stores, Southern Season, to go pick her up a souvenir loaf of banana nut bread. The hotel itself was novel, with old UNC radio football and basketball highlights being played outside the lobby and UNC souvenirs available for purchase in the lobby. The room just left much to be desired.

Anyway, I survived my night, despite the A/C giving out and awoke before my 5:30 alarm to get packed up and head to the race. I tried something a little different for a pre-race breakfast this time, going with peanut butter on a "everything" bagel. I figured it wasn't so different from anything I normally eat that it would cause issues. Despite having started the day with plenty of time, a longish checkout process and my generally moving slowly had me arriving at Jordan Lake at about 6:30 a.m. There was plenty of parking (roughly 75 runners were registered) when I arrived and it was only about a 100 yard walk to where Lee and Phyllis had already set up a table for all of our food, water, etc... We had both purchased a 2.5 gallon Deer Park dispensing water jug and we had both brought our folding chairs. Lee left his open to sit in, while I used it to hold my duffle bag with all my stuff. In addition to various granola bars, I brought about ten servings of Tailwind, sunscreen, Vaseline, extra clothes and a change of shoes. Not knowing the terrain, I would start the race in my Salomon road shoes, but had my Salomon XA Enduros as backups.

Besides Lee and Phyllis, I saw a few familiar faces in Tyler Peek, Dan Paige (who just came up to help,) and Doug Dawkins, who is the father of the race director. There were also some others I knew, but not as well. There were 51 registered for the 12-hour, versus 38 in 2016 and they added a 6-hour race that had 20 registered runners. So, it was a little bigger crowd on a shorter loop, which meant that you'd rarely be alone on any section of the course. As ready as we were going to be, everyone gathered behind the timing mats for a few standard announcements from RD Erin Suwatanna and, having forgotten her air horn, she just gave us the "ready, set, go" start. I was near, but not at the front as we crossed the mat and almost immediately made a near-180 degree turn to continue along the trail. For this first lap, I carried nothing, but would pick up my bottle - a Salomon soft flask - when I came by our table on the next lap.

My initial goal for this race was to do better than I did in 2016, which was 61.53 miles. That would mean I'd need to do 46 laps. Knowing that number gave me a secondary goal of 50 laps since that would be a nice round number, though I never did the math to determine how many miles that would be. The farthest I've gone in 12 hours in 72 miles in the first half of the 2011 Freedom Park New Year's Eve Ultra. That was very unlikely to happen since Freedom Park had a solid surface and nearly ideal weather. The forecast of temps in the 80s and partly sunny made my first goal of doing better than 2016 my only real focus since I handle heat so poorly. There were supposed to be two relay teams taking part in the race, but from the start, I could only spot one team, made up of three youngish guys. They carried a chipped baton and handed it off at the start/finish area whenever they changed runners. From the outset, they were flying--fortunately too fast to even pull me along at their too-fast pace. I, along with everyone else, would see them come by me many times over the next twelve hours.

It took only a couple laps for the morning's 60 degree temperatures to begin to be too much. I was wearing my lightest weight, white shirt and it was already burning me up. This changed a little bit for the better when I had sweat through it and it helped cool me with the occasional breeze, but when you're hot at 8:00 or 9:00 a.m., it doesn't make you look forward to 1:00 p.m. There were a number of walkers in the 6 and 12 hour events. I don't know whether they were out there for a distance goal, because they knew and wanted to support Erin and her organization, or for both reasons.

I knew that I was probably going too fast early on because I don't really have that conservation of energy mindset that I really need. I was running what I thought was a ten minute mile pace, but Strava tells me that for the first 18 miles, most were in the 8s. I think, but am not certain, that my watched stopped the running time clock when I stopped at the table to refill my bottle, etc..., so that pace was based on actual running time and not elapsed time.

I really didn't do much talking early on aside from the usual "good job" type things when you are passing or being passed. I kidded Lee when I caught him talking one guy's ear off that he was stealing his energy. But, knowing it would be a long day, I was really trying to just zone out and let the time pass. One big negative to these "hour" races is that you see the clock ticking ever so slowly with each loop. Part of you is happy because the slow moving clock means more time for a higher mileage total at the end. But, the flip side of that is that there is more time for more pain and suffering. It was ticking VERY slowly on this day--due largely to the short loop causing me to see it more often than at the other 12-hour runs I had done. Brandon Wilson was timing it again and he has the large TV screen with the clock in the center and as you cross the mat, your stats appear at the top. Prior runners' stats are listed below yours, in order that they last crossed the mat, but many are hidden behind the time. You can see your place, but the only way to see who is right ahead or behind you, mileage-wise, is if they crossed one or two spots before you on that lap. I tried not to look and did a pretty good job, except my eyes were all too often drawn to the clock.

Even though I wasn't talking much, I could tell early on that this was an extremely friendly bunch of runners. Many were teamed up and chatting away. These events do pass more quickly when you have the distraction of a fellow runner with you, but I was on my own here. I saw one guy wearing on a 50-states Marathon shirt that had "X 6" at the bottom (did all 50 six times, I guess) and "110 countries" at the top. I never got around to asking him if I understood the shirt correctly, but that would mean a minimum of 410 marathons without any overlaps. There was also a guy with a shirt indicating he beat lung cancer, but I never got the chance to congratulate him. In general, everyone was in a good mood and kept it the entire race. 

Since the laps are so repetitive and relatively uneventful, there is little use in going into great detail about each one. So, I'll skip ahead to around mile 20 when I decided the Salomon Sense Pulse road shoes I started with were no longer suitable. That was the longest distance I had worn them running so maybe they just don't suit me as well as my other shoes. Changing into my XA Enduros felt like saying hello to an old friend and I stuck with them for the rest of the day. On one lap, both me and the guy who was running just ahead of me noticed that we didn't hear the beep when we crossed the mat and I didn't see my name come up at the top of the screen. We both talked to the timers and they assured us we were being counted. I later noticed that there is a delay of several seconds between the time I crossed the mat and when it appeared on the screen. In talking with the timers, I learned that I had just completed lap 20, which was right at a marathon distance, at roughly the four hour point. My Garmin watch agreed with their numbers almost exactly. Holding that pace would mean a day of about 78 miles, but I wasn't so foolish as to believe the next eight hours would go so well. It was now about 11:00 a.m. and the hottest parts of the day lay ahead.

As 11:00 moved to noon and 1:00 p.m., the shade was at a premium and the sun was bearing down in full force. Eventually, some clouds made there way overhead, but they were currently infrequent. To keep from squinting and minimize pollen in my eyes, I put on my sunglasses pretty early. This would be only the second time I had worn them in a race with the other being Bryce Canyon last year. Though I worry it makes me seem standoffish, they really did help. I was regularly using sunscreen on my face and arms and around 1:00 p.m., I broke out the Enduracool towel I had put in a cooler of cold water. This lightweight, water-holding, towel I bought at Lowes on clearance was the single best thing I had packed for this race. Initially, the thought was to just cool down at the table with it, but it was so lightweight, I just left it around my neck and tucked the ends into the front of my shirt and ran with it on me. Every several laps, I'd put it back in the cooler to chill while I filled my bottle and put it back on when I started up again.

In the mid-afternoon, I was doing more walking and I started chatting with some of the runners if we were near one another. I even found myself on an extended walk break talking to the same guy as Lee had talked to earlier in the race. This was his first ultra, having done marathons before. Lee thought his name was Grey and if so, he would finish the day at about 48 miles, not too much less than double his previous long distance. By now, I had people telling me I was leading and I was able to figure out who was next behind me. At one stop, he crossed the mat just behind me and I asked Phyllis to go look at the screen and tell me how close in laps he was to me. She said he was three laps back, or about 4 miles. I realized that if I actually wanted to win, I couldn't relax because he could make that up quickly. I had seen him running ahead of me at times and he looked like he was just cruising effortlessly. We talked for a while on one lap and I told him he was making running look easy. He assured me it was anything but easy, but I certainly couldn't see him struggling.

At about the nine hour point (4:00 p.m.) I began to feel like the home stretch was approaching. Yes, it was still a long three hours to go, but the end did seem to feel in sight. The clouds had thickened some and while there was still direct sun at times, we did get extended relief at times. The EnduraCool towel was doing great and I believe it made a huge difference in how I felt during the hottest part of the day. Some time in the mid-to-late afternoon, I began taking advantage of the BB&T bottled water they had on ice at the finish and was getting one every couple laps. It was so good, but I had to be careful and not drink too much too fast. It was so cold that it didn't settle well during one lap, and I had to deal with stomach discomfort for a while. Fortunately, that went away--probably as my body brought the water temperature up to normal--and I was more cautious about how I drank it going forward. The ice under my hat routine continued and I kept carrying my Tailwind-loaded Salomon bottle on most laps, though occasionally, I carried the BB&T bottle instead.

I knew that I had to keep the guy in the blue tank top from passing me multiple time during these final hours. If I ran into trouble or walked too much, I thought it a real possibility that he could easily pass me once per hour. I don't go into races thinking or expecting to win, but if I have a chance, I want to at least try. I remembered the 2016 race where I was something like 17 minutes behind the leader on our last lap and closed it to within about 2.5 minutes by the finish because he ran into some major issues right at the end. I just had to be smart about when to run and when to walk, and keep cool as best I could the rest of the way, so that the same thing wouldn't happen to me as happened to him that day.

Because I thought I recognized her as a friend of Derek Cernak's and a participant in some of his events, I introduced myself to Shannon, whom I had seen on occasion throughout the race. She said she did know Derek and we spoke briefly about our mutual acquaintance. Unfortunately, she was about to make a longer stop at her table so we didn't really get to compare Derek notes.

During the last couple hours of the race, I was biding my time. Some laps felt better than others, even if the split times were roughly the same. Sometimes the difference in lap times was just a factor of how much time I spent/wasted at our table after a loop. I caught Lee a couple times in the final hours because he was walking more. On occasion, I'd walk a bit with him. Phyllis joined him for the last 9-10 miles to lend moral support. I expected my laps to be in the 20 minute range now and would calculate how many that meant I had left. "Unfortunately," my laps were actually more like 15-17 minutes, so the number of remaining laps increased one or two over the last two hours.

When I was in the 11th hour, I completed a lap at roughly the 11:20 point. I knew that if I gave the next one a good effort, I could probably walk all of the final lap and finish just under twelve hours. Keep in mind that partial laps don't count, so if I wasn't across the line in that final lap by the 12 hour point, it wouldn't count. Still, I thought if I could allow myself 23-25 minutes for that last lap, I could likely walk it. I pressed a little and finished my current lap at the 11:35 point. I decided to run a little bit of this final lap, just to give myself extra cushion for walking. After getting through the first section of the loop and about to start walking, I saw Lee and Phyllis walking ahead of me, on the straightaway heading down toward the lake. So, I kept running--perhaps another quarter mile--to catch up, and walked it in with them. Shortly before the finish line, Lee had Phyllis run ahead to get a picture and we ran roughly the last 100 feet to the end to look good for the camera.

Lee and I finishing together.
Lee told me he was going to be right at his 50 mile goal, allowing that it didn't work out exactly mathematically based on the loop distance. We came through the finish at 11:52:14--not leaving enough time for another lap. Someone, I think it was Dan Paige, told me as I crossed the finish that I had done 50 laps. I was honestly a little surprised. Even though Phyllis was viewing the live results on her phone, she didn't mention my lap count during that last lap. So, I had managed to get my secondary goal. This equated to 67 miles, or much more than I had hoped for at the start. 

In looking back, there were a few things that really went well on this day. Most notably, I was able to keep from overheating and having any dehydration issues. While the long adventure runs (Foothills Trail and Roan Mountain 30-miler) with Dennis and Brian didn't make this day feel short, they did help me to have more run left in me as the day and miles wore on.

There were 43 finishers in the 12-hour race and the results are posted here: It's interesting that they include splits for (approximately) various distances.

Since they tracked it, my times for approximate distances (nearest completed 1.35 mile lap) were as follows:

Marathon (27.0) - 4:02:46 
50K (32.323) - 5:02:25
50M (51.178) - 8:33:51
100K (63.299) - 11:03:21

My splits were:
Lap#LapSplitRace Time

This event is really a good one to meet any distance or time goals you might have. The surface isn't perfect for maximum mileage, but it varies and the four distinct "sections' really help to break it up. Erin and the volunteers make you feel like a celebrity at every lap and while I didn't really use their aid station, it seemed pretty well stocked. They did bring in pizza later in the race, but I usually can't handle something like that during a run.

If I keep doing races, I'll likely be back to Jordan Lake again in the future. I'll just have to find better lodging option next time.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

2018 Foothills Trail Run

I've seen fire and I've seen rain...
James Taylor - 1993

Less than a week after the Mount Mitchell Challenge, I got an e-mail (or maybe it was a text) from Dennis and Brian about running the Foothills Trail in upstate SC. I had just recently heard about the Trail from Darlene and knew almost nothing about it. Brian wanted to run the full 77 miles of the trail, having hiked it two years ago. Dennis wasn't sure what his plans, distance-wise, were and I could choose some or all. With only three people involved and limited access points, it basically came down to whether I wanted to run 28 miles (to where my car would be) or 77. After getting the go-ahead from my wife Leslie--it only cost me a Kiawah weekend--I told them I'd join the run.

There is a website dedicated to people who complete the trail non-stop (no camping, etc...) here and a closed facebook group here. We looked at the times of people we knew listed on the website and thought we had a pretty good idea of what sort of time we could expect. The only problem was that it didn't indicate what level of support they had or which direction they went. Actually, it did indicate direction, but we didn't notice the coding system at the time. Our west-to-east attempt would have my car near Whitewater Falls at mile 28 with food, water, and gear for the night. Brian put out a "bear canister" at mile 62 with food and dry clothing for him and Dennis. I would have my water filter and Brian was bringing bleach so we could drink from the creeks along the way.

In hindsight, maybe our plan for the start wasn't ideal. We couldn't get a permit at Table Rock State Park (the finish) until 9:00 a.m. and then began the shuttle to Oconee State Park to get an additional permit for parking there. 

Me and Dennis at Oconee (Note fire in the background)
Around 10:20 a.m., we pulled into Oconee and Brian went in to get the permit. We then drove to the parking area at the western terminus of the Foothills Trail. As we pulled in, we noticed they were doing a controlled burn near the parking area. Thinking nothing of it, we unloaded, geared up, and went over to the informational kiosk to have our picture made--as shown on the right. Submitting pictures at locations along the way is required to get listed on the Foothills Trail sub-36 hour finishers website. We walked to the trail head and were greeted by one of the rangers, leaning against his fire rake and smiling a little too much.

Seeming to relish an opportunity to exert his authority, he told us "not today, guys" as they were (obviously) doing a controlled burn. He and another ranger said we could go down to where the trail meets Highway 107--mile 4.6--and start there. They could have told us this when we got the permit or at least as they watched us put on our packs, but there was no way around it. The first few miles of the Foothills Trail were off limits on this day. Walking back to the car, we began to notice that it really was a much bigger burn area than it first appeared. One of the rangers said it would be 1000 acres in total. Dejected, but not defeated, we headed out of the Park, but not until after checking for (and not finding) a possible connector trail within the State Park that would bypass the fire and get us onto the Foothills Trail.

With no other options, we parked at mile 4.6. To allow us to at least travel the actual distance of the Foothills Trail, we ran on the Trail back towards Oconee for 2.3 miles, then doubled back and ran toward Table Rock State Park. Our 2.3 mile run towards Oconee did not get us back into the State Park or anywhere near the fire.

After the 4.6 mile out-and-back, we were again at Dennis's car and ready to head onward. There was now a state van with a trailer here as well and we wondered if a work crew might be out on the trail. I can't go into a mile-by-mile replay of the run because we were talking a lot and while I got to enjoy the views, I'm not sure I can recall where on the run we encountered them.

Early on, we dealt with smoke from the prescribed burn at Oconee, the cool temperatures were pushing it down into the valleys. It was fairly significant in terms of air quality, but visability was certainly not an issue. The Foothills Trail is very well blazed with white rectangles, just like the Appalachian Trail. The only complaint we had about the blazes was that their double blaze that indicates a turn was vertical, whereas trails like our MST angle the stacked blazes in the direction of the upcoming turn. That said, there were very few instances in the 77 miles where it wasn't pretty obvious which way the Trail turned.

After a few hours, we encountered a solo hiker coming toward us. After we told him about the prescribed burn--in case he was headed all the way to Oconee, he told us that he had noticed the smoke but also said it was better where he had just come from, so it looked like we would not be breathing it all day. I was very relieved when just a few minutes later, we found that he was correct. It had been bad enough that if I was still breathing it by the time we reached my car at mile 28, I knew I was going to quit.

Mile 17 - Dennis and Brian Heading To Sloan Bridge
We spent a lot of time early on running beside the Chattooga River, making Deliverance references, and just enjoying a nice day. The temperatures were mild, maybe reaching into the 50s and now that we'd left the smoke behind, everything was going well. Eventually, we came upon the last people we'd see on the Trail. Coming towards us was a group from Western Carolina University. It looked like it was possibly a backpacking class as they were mostly younger, college age hikers. We decided that they were likely headed to the van we saw parked by Dennis's car back where we started our adventure.

The trail is very nice on this end with lots of creeks and bridges. We did not count, but there must be 200+ bridges along the entire trail, ranging from simple two-board footbridges to steel-cabled suspension bridges. Even though it felt like we were moving quickly, it took us much longer than anticipated to reach my car at mile 28. Seven hours had passed and we were not terribly far from nightfall. The late start and slower pace had us cutting it too close because the only lights we currently carried were our cell phones.

Mile 28 - TRU Shirts Were Popular on this Run.
The pit stop at my car was a big one as we filled up on fresh water, changed shirts, got our lights and more food, and grabbed some rain gear. We had heard there was a chance of rain later in the evening, though how much, showers or drizzle, wasn't very clear. So I had a decision to make. Do I carry my bulkier but waterproof Brooks jacket, or my extremely lightweight but only water resistant Patagonia. I went with the latter, backed up with my long-sleeve Grindstone running shirt and a spare short sleeved shirt in a ziplock bag. For safety, I also threw in two large handwarmers. I think Brian mentioned he threw a solar blanket into his pack, just in case things went horribly wrong in the coming miles.

Saying goodbye to the car and hoping it was safe alone in this gravel, roadside parking lot, we headed back into the woods. It would be almost 50 miles until we saw another car--Brian's--at Table Rock State Park. We were now committed, unless someone decided to turn around and go back to my car relatively soon. Everyone felt really good and we now all had our trekking poles. I had been carrying mine from the start because I wanted to practice with them. I'll pause here to mention that I had severely underestimated the value of these poles. Not only did they help greatly with technical climbs and descents, they even help propel you on flat surfaces--I used them like I was cross-country skiing. They are confidence boosting as well as energy saving. Dennis would later comment that they had really helped him take pressure of his knee and hip.

Whitewater Falls
As it grew darker, we powered up the headlamps. Dennis and Brian both had high powered lights that lit up the trail like a car headlamp. I brought my less powerful Tikka RXP, but since I couldn't find my spare battery for it, I had to bring an additional headlamp as backup. I like the Tikka because if its beam overlaps another beam, it automatically dims to save battery life. Once night fell, we could hear, but no longer really see the waterfalls around us nor the views. We briefly had a view of the stars--notably the Orion constellation, but then clouds covered the sky as the night wore on.

On the right is the only picture I took along the trail, aside from pictures of us at various checkpoints. You can barely make out Whitewater Falls in the upper left, through the trees. Let's just say the picture doesn't do it justice. The upper portion is in NC and drops 411' and the lower section is in SC and drops another 400'. There is an access spur trail we didn't take that gives you a much better view. This was taken from a large bridge along the trail well below the Falls. I'd recommend searching for pictures of Whitewater Falls or Foothills Trail to get an idea of the types of things you'll see along the Trail. I don't think my words or memory will do it justice, so I will focus on our run/hike in this blog.

We knew it would happen, and eventually it did. It started with a few drops, then a sprinkle. For a while, we just got teasers. Little passing drizzles that dried fairly quickly after they stopped. Then, with the passing of the hours, the sprinkles got more frequent and became more like light showers. It was never a hard rain, but enough where when combined with the cool temperatures, we had to break out the rain gear. My decision to go with the lightweight Patagonia jacket worked well for a while, but eventually the rain overpowered it's protective coating and soaked through to my skin. The extra layer of the jacket did, however, keep me a bit warmer, despite being wet.

For most of the journey, the three of us traded out running point, though none of us was ever eager to be the leader. Without our actually discussing it, it felt like as the miles passed, we'd each have our highs and lows at different times. Usually that meant two of us were good while one was going through one of the expected downs, so the two pulled the one along. I think I probably had the longest "low" once my eating had slowed and possibly a bit of Mount Mitchell fatigue began to creep in. For selecting the lead runner, we somewhat had a pattern. Dennis led on a lot of runnable stuff, they put me in front on some climbs, and Brian led on a mixture of everything.

After about 2:00 a.m., a lot of the trail sort of blurred together into a dark, wet, trudge forward. We were now farther from my car than we were from Brian's. Going forward was the only feasible option. I can't speak for Brian and Dennis, but I was hitting some low spots at this point. Our checkpoints (basically anywhere there were directional mileage signs) came and went, each seeming to take much longer to reach than necessary. At this point, my legs felt fine but my head was abandoning me. I just wanted to curl up and go to sleep. I had convinced myself that if Brian had left his tent at mile 62, with the bear canister, I would get in and tell them to come get me when they finish. I was getting chilled (mostly from my metabolism slowing) and just feeling beat. I couldn't see finishing.

Mile 62 - Brian and Dennis Gear up for the Final 15
When mile 62 finally did arrive, I saw that Brian's tent was not there and I was indeed obligated to finish this thing or die trying.. We stood under the kiosk and I put on a dry shirt and my slightly-wet-from-rain Grindstone shirt. Then, I put my soaked through jacket back on since the rain had shown no signs of passing. It was about 5:17 a.m., a little over an hour before sunrise. This extended stop, and perhaps the dry shirt, actually made me feel a bit better and we actually had some runnable sections after this that helped keep us warm, while moving us more quickly towards the end of the Trail.

Sunrise was unspectacular with the cloud cover, but it did provide a much needed emotional lift to our spirits and energy. It increasingly began to seem more likely that I'd live to see Table Rock State Park. We still had a lot of climbing to do and at least twelve more miles at this point, but I certainly felt a lot better about doing it. The climb up Sassafras Mountain was a tough one and due to construction work at the top, we were detoured up the pavement rather than continuing along the Foothills Trail. I don't think it changed the distance much. By now, the rain had pretty much stopped, though I hadn't bothered to take off my gear. In the wee hours of the night and early morning, conversations had dwindled--with Dennis even putting on headphones to help him "zone out." Now, with an end in sight, we were much chattier and jokes flowed much more freely.

Mile 67 - Sassafras Mountain & Headlamp Hair!
From here, we had just under ten miles to go. our pace quickened somewhat through areas where we could move fast. There were still stretches that required cautious navigation, but between the daylight and renewed energy, even those went by quickly. After Sassafras, we worked our way towards Pinnacle Mountain, which featured some enormous stone features. Lack of sleep led some of us to see buildings and dams that were, in reality, simply large rock formations. I'm used to this happening to me at night during a run, but it was unusual to experience it during the daylight hours. By now, the rain had passed and I was starting to heat up with my layers on. But, since we were steadily moving, I didn't want to hold things up by stopping to take off jackets. Our next checkpoint was the point where the Foothills Trail joined the Pinnacle Trail. It seemed to stretch on forever, but we were at least distracted somewhat by the interesting scenery. It was somewhere just before reaching this point that my GPS ran out of juice. It recorded almost 72 miles and made it for 22 hours. I had not set it for the most conservative battery-saving mode because it would take GPS readings less frequently and I feared it might have too great a negative affect on the map and distance calculations.

At last, we reached the trail junction and saw the sign stating that it was four miles to the Table Rock Parking Lot. At this point, it was about 9:20 a.m., so we had 1:40 to finish in under twenty-four hours. We headed down quickly, knowing it would be a steep and somewhat technical descent. After going about a mile along this section (they had markers every 1/2 mile) I was really getting warm and decided I had to at least get my jacket and gloves off. The jacket is lightweight but it was holding in the heat now. To avoid a complete stop, I removed everything while maintaining a reasonably fast walk through the less technical and flatter stretches of trail. It was fitting that when we had descended to the lower elevations, we were once again crossing bridges, like we had for so much of the run. These final bridges were over (I believe) Mills Creek.

At the Foothills Trail Kiosk in Table Rock State Park.
Finally, the trail emerged behind the, strangely closed, visitor's center. 23:25 had elapsed since we started our journey and we were beaten down but not defeated. To no one's surprise, it started raining again after we took pictures at the sign marking the eastern terminus of the Foothills Trail. The rain was stronger than it had been earlier, so we had finished just in time to avoid most of it. Dennis had some sore spots on his feet, which he attended to, while (after changing to dry shirts yet again) Brian and I waited in the car. The parking lot was mostly empty, so there were no curious onlookers wondering where we had come from and why we looked so exhausted. There wasn't really a period of reflection or celebration, we were all too drained for that. The ride back to my car was a combination of discussion and message checking--letting people know we survived.

When we reached my car in the now-soaked and muddy parking area, I gave Brian and Dennis their stuff back from my trunk as I held a waterproof a seat cover over me--it was the only dry thing I had I could use for protection from the rain. As I got in my car, I noticed someone had walked up (their car was there when we pulled in) and spoke to Brian and Dennis. They later told me that he was one of the shuttle drivers who ferries hikers to their car when they finish their hike or from their car to the trailhead. He gave them his card for "next time." Since we finished, I really have no need for a next time, though I will say that doing the trail straight through means missing a lot of the beautiful scenery since for most of us, that means running at night. It's a great challenge to do it non-stop, but forgoing all the spur trails to overlooks and waterfalls is tough to accept. It's definitely worth another visit (especially in the Fall) and I hope to return with Leslie one day soon for a more leisurely experience.

My Strava GPS Record -- Note that the GPS quit after about 22 hours and six miles short. It also missed the elevation change, though when I imported the file to MapMyRun, it showed 11,000' of climb. In another person's online report, they reported 18,000'. Whatever the true number is, if you go, just be prepared for some seriously steep climbs in places.