Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Saturday, March 18, 2017

2017 Assault on Black Rock

I don't do many reports on shorter distance races for the simple fact that I don't enter many shorter distance races. I don't enter because they require you to run harder and that hurts. But Doug Thompson talked me into signing up for the Assault on Black Rock as part of our already schedule run that weekend. We were to run on the Black Mountain Crest Trail to familiarize him with the course before he competes in the 2017 Quest for the Crest. So, we planned to go over to the Bowlens Creek Trailhead after the Assault and run from what will be his first aid station as far as time allows and then come back to the car. But, we had to survive the race first.

The course profile. Serious stuff.
Assault on Black Rock is in Sylva, NC, a city I hadn't visited in probably thirty years. I wouldn't actually see much of the city as the race takes place at Pinnacle Park, just outside of Sylva. It's a seven mile run/hike/climb to the top of (I guess?) Black Rock Mountain. It gains 2,770' over the course, but the vast majority of that is in the first half of the race as shown in the adjacent profile graph (courtesy of the Assault on Black Rock Facebook page.)

I believe about 92 people registered for this year's race, which benefits the Clean Slate Coalition. Though I wasn't really concerned about trying to place high, I wondered who the fast runners might be. Last year, the race attracted a number of fast runners I knew, but of that group, only Johnny Zarbock had returned this year. I saw a few "Norm's Maggots" jerseys and given their reputation knew that they would be fast, and Sayrd, a friend from the Revolutions running club had shown up--though I knew he was coming. Actually, a lot of people looked fast so I knew I'd have to be very careful about not getting caught up in their pace early on. Since it takes me so long to get going, I have trouble starting on an immediate uphill, which is exactly what this race promised--with that hill lasting for the better part of 3.5 miles.

The race start/finish area was a simple affair, but that was fine, and with the on-and-off drizzle, they had built a fire in a firepit. The shirt was a nice color of green and the small fit me pretty well--though if it shrinks in the wash, I'll have to pass it on to Leslie or a niece/nephew. Doug and I made the 1.5 hour drive that morning and arrived in time to loosen up a little bit, with Sayrd accompanying us, on adjacent trails that weren't quite as steep. But the 9:00 start time came quickly and we soon found ourselves on the starting line.

The airhorn start sent us on our way up the double-track, rocky road bed. I really tried not to pay attention to those around me and their pace, but I did notice Johnny, in his NC state flag jersey, had quickly gotten well ahead, along with a number of other runners. There were also quite a few people right around me. I was probably on the outer edge of the top ten after the first half-mile or so and still just wanted to run steadily and not be afraid to take a quick walk if I absolutely had to. This was the first race in a long time that I didn't either have on a pack or carry a water bottle. There were water aid stations at miles 2 and 2.5, so I figured that would be fine--especially given the cool, misty morning.

It wasn't long before I, along with everyone around me, found myself fast-walking the hills. I was probably running more than I normally would have in the past, but there were some sections that really called for a walk. As we went up, the pack around me thinned out. I never looked back to see who was behind me, but sometimes I could hear a brief conversation and knew that I was far from alone. Surprisingly, I found myself gaining on Johnny on the walking stretches. In his defense, he'd run 43 miles already that week, so he probably was starting to feel some of that. When I caught up to him, I warned him not to bend over so much on the walking because he's cutting off his air. Whether he took the advice or not, I don't know because I slowly pulled away from him, figuring he'd catch me on the downhill, along with many others who were currently behind me.

At the first aid station, they asked if I wanted water and I said "sure." They handed me one of those little 6 or 8 oz. water bottles. While I understand the convenience of the bottle for the aid station volunteers, it did mean I'd be carrying whatever I didn't immediately drink for a while. I think I maintained a pretty good pace considering the climb and no one was running me down, though if they had, I couldn't have done much more to have stayed ahead of them. I finished off the water and dropped the empty bottle at the mile 2.5 aid station and noticed the trail had leveled off somewhat (refer to the profile above.) I was able to run a fairly decent pace on this stretch and tried to take advantage of it, knowing that a severe climb lay ahead.

Roughly a half-mile later, I made the left turn off the double-track onto the steep, muddy, single-track to the summit. This was a tough section of steep, muddy trail (climbed 650' in 1/3 mile) where I sometimes found myself grabbing trees to pull up. I kind of figured out what to expect from talking with Johnny at the start, so at least I was somewhat mentally prepared for the climb. I kept waiting to see the leaders come back toward me and the further I went, the more I began to wonder if they had gone up and down so fast that they had already gotten back to the point where the return course split off from the outbound route. That would have put them over a mile ahead after two and a half miles but it wasn't totally out of the question. Since I was down to a hike, I also wondered if I'd be passed in this stretch, but I couldn't imagine anyone running up it.

Finally, the lead runner was coming back toward me and said something to the effect of my not being far from the top. Shortly after seeing him, I reached a false summit where the route went up and down a ridge for a little bit. In this section, I saw the next two runners and made room for them to get by. There was slushy snow in places up here and at 5800' it was a bit cooler and breezier than it had been on lower sections of the course.

I could hear voices above me as I passed under what must have been "Black Rock" and came up to the top from the opposite side. There were a few volunteers at the summit and one took a Sharpie to my bib and sent me on down the other side of the rock. I had to kind of slide down the steep, but short rock face and of course that's when one of the volunteers was taking pictures, getting us not running! Hahaha. Anyway, we ended up looping the entire rock and I saw some camping equipment set up under the rock as I completed the loop and headed into traffic, back down the course.

Since I could now see the other runners coming toward me, it seemed that there were quite a few people not far behind. We tried to make way for each other and that worked well until one time when I lost control and slammed my hip into a tree and ended up hugging it for a moment. It wasn't bad at the time, but later in the day, I'd find a nice bruise that was pretty tender to the touch.

Much of the descent down that now 650' drop over 1/3 mile was run just on the edge of my being under control. It wasn't that I was trying to race down it, but it was so steep and muddy, it was hard to go slowly. Many times, I'd have to look ahead to find a tree to grab to keep me on the trail and from hitting other runners on their way up. I saw Doug and Sayrd on this stretch, as well as another member of the Revolutions club, Kevin. Despite trying to use caution, the descent went much quicker than the climb and soon enough, I found myself back out on the double-track, ready for a (hopefully) runnable three miles to the finish.

And I actually felt really good as I started running again. It was a little bit gravity assisted as I was on a gradual downhill, but I felt like I was running at a 5K pace, at least at the time. There were not many rocks to worry about dodging, so if there was any part of the course where anyone could make up time, this was it. I got to the split pretty quickly and was sent down a trail we hadn't come up. I had no idea what this trail would hold and why we were going down it, but it was also double-track and early on it was very runnable. I didn't look back on the descent, even on the switchbacks, but tried to listen for Johnny, Sayrd, or other runners to come by me. The first place female was pretty close behind when I was coming down and I wondered if she was one of those runners who's really good on downhills and would be zipping by at any moment.

I was running pretty fast for me, but not faster than I could safely dodge the occasional rock. Eventually, the trail got more technical and I had to slow down. Around this time, I began to notice what felt like a blister on the heel of my right foot. I assumed it was from sliding around in my shoe on the downhill. It quickly escalated from being noticeable to being somewhat painful if the heel hit the ground, so I tried to land my right foot closer to the toes. It worked, but it was a bit awkward on the more technical stuff. Even though it was misty, off to the left, I could see that I still had a lot of elevation to lose, but it was dropping quickly.

I came upon a trail junction with some volunteers and my first thought was that this was the mile two aid station from earlier and I still had two miles to go. Then, I realized they had moved down the course to direct traffic and while I didn't know what I had left (like with Umstead, I didn't look at the map very closely,) I knew/hoped it couldn't be too far. And, it wasn't. I started to see things I remembered from the morning and heard the creek we had paralleled early in the race. After a minute or three, I could see the start/finish area ahead. I was still moving at a pretty good clip, but favoring that right heel, and I heard some lady say something about "him being injured too" when I came through. I didn't hear my time because they were asking for my bib number, which was pinned to my shorts and covered by my shirt. I did know I was fourth overall, which was way better than I expected. Johnny came in shortly after me, then another guy, and then Sayrd.

The awards ceremony started a little over two hours after the race began, so there were some runners still on the course. One thing that this race does that I'm a little unsure about is award belt buckles to anyone breaking 101 minutes. I don't know the significance of that time cutoff, but the awarding of buckles does step on the toes of the 100-miler tradition, as Sean Blanton pointed out on the race's Facebook page. I like that they came up with a creative incentive to break a certain time goal, but kind of wish they'd have thought of a different award for doing so. People breaking that time were also eligible for a door prize that they picked. I grabbed a pair of lightweight gloves, figuring if I couldn't use them, Leslie could. There were no age group awards and the top three male and female overall won engraved glass beer steins.
The course map, which I again forgot to study.

Parking involved them using (with permission) a lot of private property so I'm not sure if the race can grow much larger than it was this year, and they may not even want it to. It was a good, challenging run (with a lot of hike) tempered only by the fact that we didn't get to enjoy what must have been a nice view at the summit on this overcast morning. Ironically, as we were leaving, the clouds were breaking up and the sun had come out, but Doug wasn't interested in hiking back up to the top. So, we headed out to get something to eat and then drove to the Bowlens Creek trailhead to let him experience some of the Quest for the Crest trail. We wouldn't have time to do as much of it as he originally wanted, but at least we made almost to the Woody Ridge trail junction and he got to see the view and the profile of the Crest Trail stretching out toward Mount Mitchell. When we combined this hike with the race, we determined that we'd have roughly 12,000' in elevation change in our 15 mile day, which explains why my thighs would be sore for the next several days.

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