Monday, May 23, 2011

Scenic City Trail Marathon

Just minutes before the start of the trail marathon and half marathon on Raccoon Mountain, a helicopter landed in the field at Laurel Point. I had no idea what was going on until someone told me it was there to take pictures of the 500 plus runners participating in the race. Although temperatures were a bit warm for most people’s liking, I love hot weather and was glad that the sun was out and heating things up. Shortly after 8 everyone lined up at the start, and Randy sounded the start. I knew that I would need to go out fairly hard on the 1.5ish miles of pavement before hitting the trail in order to avoid congestion when we got to singletrack. Although a lot of trailrunners don’t like running on the road, I was thankful to have this section to spread everyone out, and the crowd was really not a factor by the time runners reached the entrance to the trail.
I continued to run at a fairly hard pace in the first few miles because the segment from Laurel Point to the East Overlook is pretty flat, and I wanted to take advantage of this while my legs were fresh. I could barely see Lance up ahead and did my best to keep him in sight, fully expecting him to drop me before long. As runners approach the East Overlook and first aid station, there are a few decent hills that mysteriously increase in difficulty on the second loop, but aren’t so bad the first time around. I ran through the aid station without stopping because it was a little crowded and this was only mile 4, so I still had plenty of fluid in my hand held. The trail gradually ascends for about a mile before a long gradual downhill to the switchyard. I love this section and made an effort to run pretty hard on the descent. Unfortunately, what goes down must come back up, and once at the switchyard, runners reach the biggest climb on the course. Raccoon Mountain is advertised as a flat and forgiving course, which is true compared to other trails in the area. However, if you go into the race expecting there to be no hills, you are rudely mistaken. My plan was to take the climb moderately hard the first time around the loop and not push too much early on. It’s not very steep except for a few spots and is maybe .5 to .75 miles long. The good part is that once at the top, you get a nice downhill to the visitor center and aid station #2.
The volunteers at this aid station were awesome. Everyone was so encouraging and I swear they refilled my bottle so fast I barely had to slow down. From here, the trail goes down a few steep hills on what is by far the most technical section of the course. Something about these next few miles always gets to me. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle or something, and I always seem to have a low point here. I don’t know if it’s because of the 3 or 4 stinger hills that are fairly steep or totally mental but whatever it is, I always struggle on this part. Thankfully, I managed to come out of my funk before too long focused on reaching the point where marathoners and half marathoners split. Those doing the half take a right to the finish, and marathoners go left up a nasty hill to the third aid station. I could still see Lance every once in a while which was a mental boost, and I was happy to see my dad and Dawson at the aid station. I quickly refilled and crossed the road to re-enter the trail. This marks the start of the second and final loop. I was still feeling pretty good and hoped to be able maintain a decent pace on the second time around.
It was definitely starting to heat up by now, but the breeze helped a lot, and I never got too hot. I did make a concerted effort to drink as much as I could. Getting dehydrated really impairs your ability to run and leads to more soreness the day after a race, so I knew that it was important to constantly sip on the HEED from my handheld. I went through the East Overlook aid station for the second time where Sam and Leigh Linhoss were volunteering. It’s great to see familiar faces, and their encouragement was much appreciated. At this point, I broke the remaining sections up into 3 parts, the one big climb, the dreaded visitor center section, and the hill leading up to the last aid station. I did my best to only focus on the section just ahead rather than the total number of miles remaining. The climb up to the visitor center was definitely much slower this time than before, and I was glad to get to the top and start the downhill. I didn’t stop at the aid station this time as I was anxious to put these next few miles behind me. To be honest, I was just hoping not to totally bonk on this part, and thankfully, it didn’t seem as bad as it had on the first loop. Before too long, I reached the split and again took a left up the hill to the final aid station. I said hi to Dawson and crossed the road for the final 3ish miles of the race. Ironically, I was thinking to myself about how I hadn’t fallen yet when I tripped and did a full superman before nailing the ground. At that point, all I could do was laugh at myself and be thankful that I hadn’t hit any rocks on the way down. I glanced at my watch for the first time all day and made it my goal to get to the finish in less than 24 minutes if at all possible.
This last bit of trail is rolling with a few little hills. I was starting to smell the barn but also knew that I still had a fair amount of running to do before I was done. Once you reach Laurel Point, runners pop out of the woods on to pavement and make a lap around the parking lot before crossing the finish line. Randy Whorton was doing and awesome job announcing names of runners on the microphone as they were coming in, not to mention adding some additional funny dialogue J. As I crossed the finish, I was happy to see so many friends hanging out and cheering on all the runners. I am so blessed to be a part of such a great running community and have the opportunity to run with some awesome folks. Rock Creek and Wild Trails did a great job organizing this event and making it a great experience for everyone. After getting an ice cold wet cloth and something to drink, I hung out and watched as other runners finished. Huge congrats to all that ran and a big thanks to all the volunteers who worked just as hard!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Byrd Creek 15k trail race

My original plan was to do a semi long easy run over the weekend in preparation for the Rock Creek Scenic City Marathon on May 21st. However, when Mark Mason mentioned that he might go up to Cumberland State Park to do a 15k trail race, I decided that this would be a good tune up before next week’s race. This was just the 2nd running of the Byrd Creek 15k, and I didn’t know anything about the area or the course. I also don’t have much experience in distances less than a 50k, so my expectations weren’t very high, but it would at least make for a good tempo run. Because the race start is less than two hours from Chattanooga, Mark and I decided to drive down the day of, making for a very early wake up call. We left in plenty of time only to be stopped on the interstate for at least 20 minutes when a Suburban in front of us literally burst in to flames minutes before we got to where it was. We waited impatiently as the fire truck arrived and put out the fire, watching the minutes tick away and fearing that we might miss the start. Thankfully, it ended up not taking as long to get there as we thought.
After registering and talking a bit with the rangers about the course, it was time to head to the starting line where me, Mark, and about 50 other runners waited for one of the rangers to say “Go”. The first .5 mile or so is on pavement and goes down a pretty steep hill before entering single track. Mark always goes out hard, so I made it my goal to stick with him. When we hit the trail, I remember thinking how bad it was going to hurt to run back up that hill at the finish as well as how there was no way I would be able to hang with Mark if he kept up the current pace. There were mile markers along the course, and we passed the first one in 6:53 which may not be fast for some but is definitely a much faster pace than I can maintain for a 15k. We did slow down a tad and I tried to find a pace that I felt I could hold. The trail was absolutely gorgeous because all the plants have come alive and are in full bloom. I had no idea what to expect as far as terrain or climbs, so I just took everything as it came. The first 4 miles were fairly rolling with some pretty tough hills but nothing too awful. A lot of the trail was covered in soft pine needles, making for a near perfect running surface. However, there were a few rocky sections that were slicker than snot due to the recent rainfall, and I almost bit it hard on several occasions.
Mile 4 to 5 was mostly downhill and was a much needed break from the constant up and down we had been running. Somewhere around here there was also a small wooden swinging bridge across a creek. If you have ever tried to run across one of these, you know it’s comical. Each step is different with one sending you bouncing two feet in the air but not forward at all and the next shooting you forward like a rocket. This is by yourself, so imagine what it’s like with 10+ plus runners on the larger swinging bridges! From here, the trail steadily climbed back to the top of the ridge before descending once again. I passed the 7 mile marker and the second water stop where we turned on to a different trail to take us back to the finish. It ran right along a creek, so it was relatively flat but covered with roots, making it the most technical section thus far. I was taking such little steps to hop between the roots that it felt like I was in some kind of obstacle course or football drill where you have to step in those big tires. Around mile 8, we climbed one last time on the trail and ran for maybe another .5 mile before popping out the road for the home stretch. I remembered the hill that I had to make it up but it didn’t seem so bad since I knew it was at the end. After cresting the hill and making a right turn, I could see the finish area and came in at 1:12. A few minutes later, I found out that the boy who won intended to run the 3.6 mile race but took a wrong turn and ended up doing the 15k by mistake. My hat’s off to him for running a great race, even though it was about 3 times longer than expected J It was also his first trail race, and after speaking to him for a while, I’m pretty sure he will be back for more! All in all, this was a great, small town event put on by some very hard working rangers. The course is beautiful and challenging, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for cool low key race.