Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

2014 Son of a Beech Mountain Climb

My friend Ray loves running more than I do, but typically settles for more days a week than longer distances. This year, we finally got him into the Mount Mitchell Challenge. I knew he would love it, and he did. A month later, I took him on the Three Peak Challenge as we summited Shortoff, Table Rock, and Hawksbill. Not a long run and one we were very casual with, but I feel that it qualifies as a "mini-epic" run. Whether his desire to do Son of a Beech Mountain was born of wanting to continue to "go long" or whether the seed had been planted in his mind long ago, I can't say. All I know is, despite my initial reluctance, I found myself at his house at 5:00 a.m. with my new Nathan Vaporwrap pack stuffed with food.

SoaBM is not a race or even a real course--it's just a name we gave to the run. Ray has an uncle who has a vacation home on Beech Mountain. Somehow, Ray got the idea that he wanted to run from his house in Valdese, to his uncle's place on Beech Mountain, approximately 56 state highway miles away. MapMyRun calculated the route to have about 7000' of climb--not terribly much considering the distance, but the bulk of it would come in two areas -- Highway 181 and the three-mile stretch of road leading up to Beech Mountain. I strongly suggested we take the back roads to Wilson Creek, run up to Edgemont, and then up to the Parkway. Even though it would add little more distance, it would keep us off some of the main roads. But his mind was fixed and, given that he wanted to use convenience stores as aid stations, his planned route was pretty much a necessity.

Traffic was understandably light on this early Friday morning. It was the last day of Spring break for the local schools, so all we dealt with for the first hour or two were people who had to get to work early. For a while, it felt just like a regular Saturday morning long run. In fact, we were on a road we use for a loop around Valdese. But when we got to the neighboring town of Drexel and didn't make the turn to continue the loop, I could almost feel my body saying to me, "you aren't serious about this are you?" From the first mention of this run, my biggest concern was traffic. The road we were now on has a 45mph speed limit and no paved shoulder. I was wearing my headlamp early so cars could see us, but its batteries were so weak, I resorted to carrying it and only turning it on when a car was near. As this was my first run in my new Nathan pack, I was finding it much more comfortable than my old Camelbak, though one removable pouch on the shoulder strap was always visible in my peripheral vision and that was a bit annoying. Once I'd used all the gels from it, I vowed to take it off.
This is the pack that may be accompanying me at Western States so I really hoped it would prove comfortable over this long day. Our goal was to finish by sunset and we were just now reaching sunrise.

This stretch of road wasn't as problematic as I had feared--again, I think the lack of school traffic helped us greatly. However, it seemed like more often than not, when a car would be coming toward us, there would be a car in the opposite lane and they'd meet right where we were--so we'd be heading into the tall grass or culvert to give them room. Morganton couldn't come fast enough because I knew we'd have some sidewalks and slower traffic. It would also be Ray's first "aid station," the Bojangles near where Hwy 181 "begins." I told Ray that the original Ridge to Bridge Marathon used to come straight down 181 and that we probably had about 25 miles to Jonas Ridge, where the race started. I knew this stretch of road very well but it's always different when you're travelling the speed limit versus say 6 mph... Ray came out with two jelly biscuits. Having had prior experience, I encouraged him to eat them soon because they seem to dry out quickly. The high percentage chance of rain meant the air was pretty humid, so perhaps that would buy him a little more time.

It was two hours in and now we were getting into regular commuter traffic. Morganton to Oak Hill is again a 45 mph area and traffic now seemed to come in packs. Plus, we were starting to pick up larger vehicles--like tractor trailers and flatbeds from nurseries. The drivers were surprisingly tolerant of us--perhaps taking pity--and we had no honks or "close encounters," save one guy that seemed to have been distracted and swerved away just as we began to get nervous. This stretch of road is fairly rural. There isn't much to see so we passed the time with chat. I have no idea, a few days later, what we talked about, so it obviously wasn't of great importance. We slowly passed landmarks of other running routes--the turn that leads to the "Fish Hatchery Loop," the start of the "Christmas Eve Day Assault on Table Rock," shortly followed by the turn that leads to Wilson Creek. Highway 181 was about to begin a long climb up to Pineola--roughly 17 miles away. I knew we'd walk substantial sections of this part of 181, but there are actually more flat and downhill areas than I remembered from driving it. We would pass Steele Creek Park -- the new start/finish area for Table Rock Ultras, and would go on to pass both areas where the 50-mile course crosses Highway 181.

It's saddening to run along our county's highways and see just how much trash is in the shoulder and in the woods just off the road. We saw just about everything, from CDs to hypodermic needles, to pieces of granite countertop. We were amidst the Pisgah National Forest, so there was no "angry property owner" there to clean up what others had tossed from their vehicles. There is a saying that "No good deed goes unpunished." Well, perhaps a bit upset that there was so much trash, I decided to remove a two foot piece of tire from the middle of the highway. There was no traffic so I grabbed it and tossed it to the shoulder--totally forgetting about the steel wires in tires. It tore two-inch gash in my index finger. It wasn't very deep, but did bleed for a while before finally scabbing over.

Onward and upward we headed. Amidst all the roadside trash, I found a small figurine that looked like a Japanese cartoon cat wearing a police uniform. His arms and legs and head all rotated so you could pose him. I stuck him in one of the pouches and we designated him our course mascot. We were about one mile below the Brown Mountain Overlook, just after the northbound lane opens up into two lanes, for passing, when we heard what sounded like giant hornets coming at us. We looked back and saw Miata after Miata zipping around a truck loaded with sod. We counted ten in all, each with their top down. Oddly, amidst the Miatas was a Subaru wagon. We figured he got stuck carrying all the food, etc... given the lack of cargo space in the two-seaters. They zipped out of sight pretty quickly and we continued on at our pace--realizing too late that they saw us walking.

When we reached the overlook, perhaps 10-15 minutes later, we were back to a run and found the Miata pack all lined up--perhaps to take in the nonexistent view. The promised rains had not come, but the cloud cover was very heavy. They were friendly and chatted with us, but none seemed inclined to offer us a ride. We would head out of the overlook a little before them but shortly after having done so, we heard the buzz of their engines as they came by us again--each waving or honking as he passed.

I told Ray that as best I could recall, the overlook was around mile six of the old marathon course. This meant we had about six miles to our next aid station--the Mountain Crossing Merchantile, where many a runner has waited over the years for the start of the marathon. After using MapMyRun, I see that I was a little high in my estimate, but it was about 5.25 miles that went by fairly quickly--though Ray had begun to complain about calf stiffness. At the Merchantile, I waited by the road. Our wives were both coming up to meet us at the end and we knew that at some point they would pass us on the road. I pulled out my PB&J and kept an eye out for them. It was shortly after noon and we were now at mile 34.75. Our pace was about 5mph, but we really were not pushing at all and had walked a lot of the climb up Highway 181. I watched an Burke County EMS vehicle pull away from the store just as Ray exited. He had picked me up a water to refill my bottle with and I foolishly didn't refill until we were too far away for me to toss the bottle in the trash or recycling bin at the store. So, here I was running along a trash-littered shoulder carrying trash. There was some irony in the scene, but I had no desire to add to the piles of discarded beer cans and McDonald's bags.

Ray had gotten a soft drink in the store and I gave him an S-cap. He seemed to be trying to jump start his calf, which seemed to be getting worse. I told him that I felt like we were fine, time-wise, to walk, and assured him that I was in this for "time on my feet," not to set any records. Traffic had picked up a little and I really didn't feel comfortable leaving him alone to run on ahead--despite his insistence I do so. We mostly walked the next four miles to Pineola, with an occasional jog thrown in. We had been on the left side of the road the entire day and the camber was getting a bit bothersome. But, it was actually Ray's right calf that was hurting, which would be on the uphill side of the camber.

By Pineola, I knew we'd be walking it in and he seemed to agree. We had about 17 miles to go, and it was a little after 1:00 p.m. So, we could average three mph and easily make it before sunset. I was fine with this. Unfortunately, the traffic increased exponentially at this point and the amount of room on the shoulder dropped inversely. We still didn't have issues with angry drivers, but it was getting really difficult to stay out of the ditches.

Ray ducked into a Dollar General for another soft drink and water and I resumed my post beside the road, in case our wives came by. We planned to take the "bypass" into Linville, which should cut down on the traffic, as long as we could make it there safely. The two mile stretch between Pineola and our turn onto the bypass went more quickly than I'd expected, perhaps because there were things to look at along the way. I know our pace wasn't good, between the walking and the traffic dodging.

Once we pulled off onto the side road (actually Highway 105) traffic practically disappeared. We could finally walk on pavement again. Then, just as we began feeling confident, we heard the golf course siren indicating lightning in the area. A minute or two later, we saw a flash, followed almost instantly by the thunder. Another minute later and the bottom opened up. It poured extremely hard. I fortunately had packed my hat and was able to keep the water from my contacts, but we were instantly soaked. My shirt began compressing like Under Armour gone out of control. We trudged along into Linville, dodging the occasional car that was kind enough to avoid the puddles near us. As we neared the entrance to the golf course, an elderly fellow in a golf course security car stopped and asked if we needed a ride. We thanked him but politely declined. I knew we'd probably have to get under a covered area for a bit while in Linville and wait out the rain. I had an extra shirt ziplocked in my pack that I'd change into if I felt that the rain wouldn't return. Ray also noted that he needed to find a place to apply some Vaseline. I didn't ask where.

We were maybe 100 yards from the Hwy 105/221 crossroads that marks the start of The Bear, when we heard a honk from behind. The wives had shown up at a perfect time--and the rain suddenly let up. I quickly got another shirt from the back of Leslie's car and removed the five pound, water-soaked one I had on. Ray went to his wife's car and when I saw him return, he didn't have to say a thing. I could see in his eyes that he was going to have to bail. He was hurting pretty bad. As we looked across the intersection at the road that lay ahead, traffic was extremely heavy. I knew that it was foolish to continue, anyway, and certainly didn't plan to do it alone. We had made it about 42 miles, with roughly 5000' of climb. It had been about nine hours since we started, so our pace had continued to drop. But in all it was fun. I know Ray wants to try it again, but if he does, I really hope he'll consider my alternate route next time...

What we did:

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