“I love the fact that I’ll be getting two medals in one weekend!” -MeVVV was slated to be my very first stage race and the furthest distance I’d have ever run in a two day time period. As a naturally anxious person, this should have sent me over the edge on my pre-race hypochondria, but a confluence of craziness at work and craziness at home didn’t leave me time to fret about who had touched the gas pump, bank pen, door handle, or elevator button before me. Anxious or not, I DID come down with a cold on the Wednesday before the race. This either means (A) my crazy pre-race hypochondriacal behaviors are 100% justified and I should continue them, or (B) I got a cold, but it wasn’t so bad and I got through it and it didn’t really affect my race so I should take it as a sign to chill out. The jury’s still out on which way I’ll go!
Packet pickup was held at Oskar Blues brewery on Friday, and Misty and I made the trip out to Brevard to pick up packets for ourselves and for Latisha. The plan was for Misty to run day one (20.5 miles), Latisha and I would run both days, and then Carrie would run day two (14.5 miles). I like plans, and this was a good one that made me feel confident going into the weekend. Stretched, foam rolled, fed, and in bed at the crack of 9:00p.m., I was ready to start a most epic weekend!
“If someone ever tells you to ‘go hike the North Slope Connector,’ they’re basically telling you to go F-yourself.” -Me4:59 a.m. [vibrate]...[beep!]
Misty: Good morning. U feeling ok? Think they will let me run tomorrow instead of today? I’ve been up most of the night with fever and vomiting.
Me: Oh my gosh, that’s terrible! I feel fine...Just the snot still. The race is so laid back I’m sure they would let you, but are you ok?
Misty: Still very nauseated. Fever broke around 3:30. I would almost try it but I don’t really think I could make it.
Katie: No! It would be crazy for you to go. Friends don’t let friends die take dumb risks like that. Stay home, take in fluids, relax, be warm.
Day one was off to a rocky start. Misty had been looking forward to this race, and in my vision of how Day 1 would go she played an immutable role. But health is the most important gift we can give ourselves and there will be plenty more races that Misty and I will run in the future. I let Latisha know it would just be the two of us for the day, and together we headed out to Cove Creek Campground where the race would start.
Latisha’s car read 18 degrees Fahrenheit as we wound our way down the road, past the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education before finally splashing our way up to the campground - yes, “splash,” because you have to ford a creek like a true pioneer to get to the start line.
We were greeted by smiling volunteers and the race directors, all thickly bundled in coats and mittens, stoking a roaring campfire and handing out coffee and breakfast goodies. Other runners began trickling in around us as Latisha and I did our final pre-run dance in her car: “Are you wearing your gloves? Should I wear one coat or two? Where did my inhaler go? I need more kleenex. I have to go potty again!”
Before I knew it we were corralled to the start line to receive instructions - “The trails will be well marked each tenth of a mile or so with blue and white flags.” But it was hard to pay attention or hear through the nervous chatter of the runners in my immediate vicinity - “I wish I had pooped one more time.” “Too late now!” The fog horn sounded and we were off!
We took off as a herd, quickly exiting the main road and entering a single-track path alongside a rushing river. I followed behind Latisha, carefully picking my way around rocks and roots. My Altra Lone Peaks provided excellent stability, grip, and cushioning, even as we transitioned back to pavement again before turning onto a path covered in a deep bed of fall leaves. We began a gentle climb up the mountain (no idea which mountain) and runners spread out as those of us who are slower on uphills let others speed on by.
After the initial 5 miles of gentle climbing, miles 6 and 7 gave way to a series of straight up then straight down hills on a very narrow, very slick path. But by mile 8 we hit a section that was smooth sailing down a grassy gradual downhill. We took advantage of the break and flew past many of the runners who had passed us early on in the race on the first uphill section.
At mile 11.5 Latisha and I partook of some orange slices and pumpkin bread at the aid station, topped off our water bladders, then headed off along a very flat path through a campground. All the while I had it in my head that the second ascent of the course would be similar to the first, but as we approached mile 12 a runner passing by leaned in and said in an ominous tone, “prepare to climb.” I wondered, what do you call what we’ve been doing? but knew that -- ready or not -- I was about to find out.At the lowest elevation point on day 1 around mile 12 we were at 2,000ft above sea level. For the next two miles Latisha and I scaled 1,200 feet (the height of the Empire State Building or Sears Tower) to the course’s peak elevation of 3,200ft. I think we were both glad we had no idea this was coming because I don’t think I would have believed I could do it had I not been forced to. My quads, calves, and lungs were on FIRE even though I was crawling along at a 30 min/mile pace! I picked up a walking stick just so I could use some arm muscle to heave myself up the mountainside like a legless zombie and give my quads a break. The path was so steep that we had to take a switch-back pattern up the mountain, zigging and zagging every ten or fifteen feet as we made our way up and up. Latisha, who had come into the race with a right foot injury, began to limp a little from all the extra strain. The two of us were very quiet over that period, diving into the deep recesses of our minds to dredge up the inner badass it took to keep going.
But finally, the climbing stopped. It seemed like the race should have ended there because we had spent such a Herculean effort making it to the top of that dang mountain, but we still had four miles to go. The good news was that most of the remaining mileage would be downhill. At first, the freedom of being back on double track and downhill lit a fire in Latisha and she took of for at least a mile, clocking an 8min/mile pace. I couldn’t keep up and told her to go on. Unfortunately, the pounding further aggravated her foot and I ended up catching back up with her when we had (what I thought was) two miles to go. After sticking together for a bit, I decided I needed to be done. With Latisha’s blessing I looked at my watch (19.5miles) and motored on.
Even though I knew logically that I was more than a mile away from the finish line when my watch read 19.5 miles, my heart was hoping I was wrong. But the final couple of miles of the race were a backtrack of the first few miles, and as my watch ticked off 20.5 miles, 21 miles, 21.5 miles, I became more and more desperate. I interrogated every runner I saw, asking them to estimate as precisely as they could the distance to the finish line (as though I didn’t know, having just run this path a few hours ago). FINALLY, at 21.75 miles, I rounded the corner into the campground and made my way to the finish chute. After 5 hours (even) I had completed the most challenging race course I have ever run in my life. Latisha bravely followed just a few minutes behind me, but I knew from the look on her face and from her gait that her foot had had it. We celebrated our accomplishment with a beer and some amazing veggie chili before driving back home.
The Night Between
“Of COURSE pizza is a healthy recovery meal. I got vegetables on it, didn’t I?”Latisha made her final decision not to participate in the Day 2 race on Saturday evening. Instead, Deanna would use Latisha’s bib and run in her stead. Misty was still sick, so that meant it would be me, Carrie, and Deanna running on Sunday. Stiff, sore, snotty, and starving, I did what any rational person would do about dinner: I ordered delivery pizza. After eating, taking a hot shower, and using my Neti Pot, I stretched and rolled out my whole body while I watched The Walking Dead before I was off to bed. That’s it, nothing fancy.
“My ass better resemble the sculpted curvature of a Roman goddess after this.” -MeI woke up on Sunday feeling a little stiff, a touch sore, but mostly pretty good! My back didn’t hurt, which was the most important thing to me, and I made sure to carefully cover the blister I had gotten the day before on my foot, and KT Tape my (now) slightly cranky right knee. I packed up my gear and headed to Brevard to meet up with Carrie and Deanna. Somehow in the shuffle of getting into Deanna’s car (my VW Beetle couldn’t make the creek crossing to get into the campground) my GPS watch and phone fell out of my bag and got left behind in my car (oops!). Once we made it to the camp area we did the pre-race dance again - “I have to potty, but the line to the pit toilet is too long.” “Are you sure my tights aren’t see-through?” “I can’t feel my feet it’s so cold.” etc. After some last minute instructions from the race directors we all sidled up to the startline and were off at 8:30 on the nose.
I would describe most of Day 2 as mild. In the beginning Carrie and I ran together through sunlit fields, lush rhododendron groves, across log bridges, and beside bubbling waterfalls. To my surprise, my knee stopped hurting completely after about mile 6 and I never felt it again during the race or after. I was in such a good mood that when we finally did arrive at the inevitable mountain ascent, I felt ready for the challenge. I’m not sure my quads, hamstrings, and calves were ready, but as my good friends Nadine and Jessica always say, hills make your butt look good...so I climbed.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to do another 1,200ft in 2 miles, but we did do about 1,000 ft over 3.25 miles, an appreciable feat. When I came upon a volunteer around mile 8 who assured me that I was done climbing and that it would be smooth sailing to the finish, I took him at his word and allowed myself to ‘push’ the rest of the way in.
By the time I was around mile 9 I was running by myself and had no idea how far I’d gone or how far I had to go since I didn’t have my GPS watch. I used this as a motivator to drive me forward to try and catch up with someone who did have a watch. It worked! I began picking off runners one at a time, asking each as I passed what mile mark we were at. I knew from the day before that there was a chance the trail would go long and that I wouldn’t get to stop at 14.5, but I was having fun and it wasn’t a big deal. I was tired, yes, but I could keep going.
Thank you to my girls (Misty, Latisha, Carrie, and Deanna) for being there for me, and thank you to all the other runners, volunteers, and especially the race directors for making this weekend such a great one!
See you on the trails!