Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Monday, April 12, 2010

2010 Pilot Mountain Payback Marathon

This race was originally scheduled for Feburary but the rough weather we had during the winter necessitated moving it back a couple months. While the cooler temperatures of February would have been welcome, ice on some of the higher sections of the trails would have been pretty treacherous. There is also a half-marathon.

The turnout was a bit smaller than expected with 45 marathoners and 66 half marathoners. There were about 50 no-shows between the two races. The race took place on trails in Pilot Mountain State Park. If you are not familiar with the profile of Pilot Mountain, it brings back memories of the scene near the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as Richard Dreyfuss is trying to get a look at the mother ship landing near Devil's Tower, Wyoming.

I'm going to preface my summary and comments by saying that this just might be the toughest marathon course in North Carolina. I can't say that for certain since I ran a longer course and the fact that Jason Bryant blistered a 3:15 without breaking a sweat, but for the average runner, I think it's tougher than Black Mountain and Grandfather Mountain.

There is a total of 4100' of climb over the 26.2 miles. Black Mountain has a total of something like 2600', though it's all in the first 14 miles or so. Grandfather's total climb might be the same, but the footing is better and you're not crossing basketball and beachball sized rocks along the course (which you do when you begin the serious part of the ascent up Pilot Mountain.)

Aid stations are well stocked with the usual fare, but (as is often the case with trail races) they are spaced a bit further apart than with a road race. They were found at miles: 2, 5, 8, 12.5, 17.5, 19.5, 22.5, 25.5 though the first and last were water only and unmanned.

The course information mentions 12 creek crossings but I'd say it was closer to umpteen and many of them were probably a good 8-12" deep at least. The first crossing takes place in the first 100 yards and is followed by a climb up a pretty good hill to really get your heart going. Then it's rolling hills for about the next seven or eight miles. When you hit the aid station at mile eight, the half-marathoners turn around and the marathoners begin a loop that will take you up Pilot Mountain and then eventually bring you back out to this point at mile 19.5. It was at this point that I made my first wrong turn and soon found myself at the mile 17.5 aid station facing a shocked group of volunteers who hadn't expected someone so quickly.

Anyway, somewhere soon after mile 8 (on the correct course) you hit rougher trail and then it begins to climb quickly toward the Summit Aid Station (which is in a parking lot adjacent to the actual Pilot Mountain.) I did not realize only rock climbers could get to the summit so after leaving this aid station, we were supposed to do one lap around the knob but I ended up doing two, looking for the trail to the top, until I asked someone and learned you can't get to the top. The descent trail was as tricky as the ascent in terms of rocks and roots and you really had to be careful not to overrun your feet.

Once you had knocked off most of the descent, it was back to the usual rolling hills along a wooded trail. There are still some pretty good hills left, steeper (or at least longer) than anything I remember in Umstead or Triple Lakes, which were similar to this course's lower elevations. Once you make it back to the mile 8/19.5 aid station, you're on the course you ran out on except it cuts out about 1.3 miles, as the math will indicate.

The finish area (and start area) is in a large picnic area and you can cool your feet in the stream you crossed at the start if they are blistered or overheating. I grabbed pizza but I don't remember what else was offered at the finish besides water. Instead of medallions, they handed out mugs with the race name on it. Instead of t-shirts, they handed out arm warmers which I personally don't use. I gave them to my wife. Most of us have too many t-shirts anyway, so the change was no big deal. Oh, there was also a mini-box of Wheaties Fuel in the race packet.

The race director and volunteers did a really good job, especially when you consider it was a first year event, which typically have a few bugs to work out. I really think I'll have to try it again in the future and run the correct route just to see if I really do think it's the toughest North Carolina Marathon course. I don't know if they'll go back to the February date in the future. That would make it tougher for me to schedule with Mount Mitchell in February and my desire to try Uwaharrie next year, but I really do hope to get another crack at PMPM.

Pilot Mountain Payback Marathon

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