Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

2013 Leatherwood Mountains Ultra 50-Miler

I signed up for Leatherwood partly because I had met one of the race directors at another run and wanted to support an area first year event, plus I needed the miles. To be honest, I'm not sure if I would have heard about it, had I not spoken to the RD, despite it's being about thirty miles away.

Looking back at a great view. That's Charlie Engle in orange.
The event (which also includes a 50K and a 10-miler) took place on April 20th at Leatherwood Mountains Resort in Ferguson, NC--roughly between Lenoir and North Wilkesboro. The Resort seems geared primarily toward horseback riding, but there are lots of other things one could do there--like run. The 50-miler featured three loops, all of which brought you back to the start/finish area at the stables. Each loop was marked with a different colored streamer--yellow, pink, then orange. You were given a wristband with the color of the loop you were on each time you started a new loop. This was to help you, and the race officials, keep track of which loop you were on. It's hard to mark so much trail in a way that nobody makes a mistake. The yellow ribbons were a little hard to see against the light green of the new leaves and the morning sun, but of the three mistakes I made, none were because of that.

Aid stations were spread roughly 4-7 miles apart, with the closer ones coming later in the race when runners were likely moving slower. Unless you are a camel, it was critical to carry water with you. There were two primary aid stations, one being the start/finish area and the other being sort of in the middle of the loops. We hit those aid stations twice and five times respectively. There was one unmanned station early in the race and another we hit only once. I've noted before that I am not the most observant when it comes to aid station spreads, but I did notice they had a lot of the usual fare, including pb&j, chips, soft drinks, etc... Oh, and they had bacon?!?!? Not sure how much of that was consumed. The sports drink of choice was Heed. I actually left Succeed Ultra with my bag at the start/finish area and refilled my bottle with it each time I came through--taking only water from the aid stations.
One of the less technical but still steep hills. Click to enlarge.
The course is extremely hilly. I had heard rumors of 13,000' in elevation gain and can honestly believe it. Compounding the challenge of the hills was a lot of mud. This made some of the steep downhills very tricky as there were often no dry spots to put your feet on, you basically tried to manage a controlled slide. I do not believe the mud is a permanent feature of the trails, but that the rains earlier in the week had not fully dried up. There were a number of creek crossings, some that you could rock-hop and some you just had to plow through. The deepest was maybe 18" where I crossed, maybe a tad deeper.

With the trails criss-crossing and sometimes running in opposite directions, you would often encounter people who were behind you, ahead of you, or in a totally different race. I don't know if I encountered any ten milers, but I did see plenty of 50K runners. In runs like these, that twist through the woods, up and down and around hills, you can feel totally alone and someone is only a couple hundred yards away.

A runnable downhill stretch!
With respect to my day, it went pretty well until the end. I figured I had about two miles of unintentional detours (probably everyone made at least one or two wrong turns) but was somehow in second place after the second loop. Then my fatal mistake came.  I ran out the third loop backwards. By the time I realized it, I figured it was two miles back to my missed turn (so four extra miles, total) and that I'd no longer have a shot at placing. So, I decided I'd just continue the loop in reverse. I got to the aid station and told them about my error and that I was going to DQ myself, but finish the course backwards. I did a four mile mini-loop that was part of the course and came back to the aid station and asked which way I should go to finish backwards, but they didn't know. After some discussion, I realized I'd just have to go back the way I came and end up short (it was two miles to the aid station the way I went and four miles the way I should have gone.) Ultimately, with my earlier detours, I'd have 50-miles, but couldn't rightfully claim a finish.

I headed back and felt a little bad when people were cheering as I finished. I told Mark Connally (one of the two Race Directors) what had happened and asked him to pull me from the results. I later learned that he had left me in the results because so many people had either intentionally or unintentionally cut parts of the course. I guess he ultimately couldn't be certain who actually ran the correct distance. In all honesty, when I look at my time and that course, a small part of me wonders if maybe I didn't miss something. This course felt far more difficult than other 50-milers I have done and my time was comparable. I can't think of any places I might have missed, but also can't believe I was so close to ten hours when during the race I was thinking anyone under ten hours should get a special award because it was probably not possible...

I think this is near the start/finish area, after the first loop.
For a first year event, I thought it went pretty well and they have a good base to build upon for next year. I will certainly consider it again next year, once the pain of this year's event wears off.

Oh, I should note that I carried my GoPro camera with me. I had told Mark Connally that I'd get some pics and video for him. I had mixed success. First, battery life has been mediocre at best with this camera and changing batteries on the run, or walk, isn't all that easy. Second, unless you get the LCD back, you don't know what you've got until you get home and put it on your computer (or sync it with your smartphone.) So, I was just pointing, shooting, and hoping for the best. I got a few good pics, some of which are posted here and some fair video (but with a lot of bouncing.) If you notice some "smears" on the pictures, that's either sweat, tears, or PowerBar gel...

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