When I found out we had a long weekend over Easter, and that John was also off, I immediately asked him if he wanted to get out of Charleston, then immediately started looking for races near Charlotte.
Charlotte is one of my favorite cities within reasonable toddler driving distance. It has great shopping, great food, and it doesn’t feel even the slightest bit southern, even though it’s only a three hour drive from Charleston. But, as much as I love Charlotte, and look for any excuse to head north, there were no short races within 30 miles of the city that looked even remotely interesting.
Then I noticed the New South Trail Half Marathon.
I’m not in half marathon shape. I’ve been training for a 5k, something I haven’t done in years, for the sole reason that between work, John’s schedule and the baby, I don’t have time to train for anything longer. But I couldn’t get this race out of my head.
I’ve missed trail running since moving to the south. My favorite part of my 20’s in California were the camping trips, rock climbing excursions (not the actual climbing itself), hikes and runs that took us deep into the pines of Southern California’s mountain range. There’s a serenity in the woods that detoxifies the chaos of everyday life.
I posted in a Women’s Running Group on Facebook asking if anyone in Charlotte knew of a race that weekend. The New South Trail Half Marathon was the first response. My second sign was a test of my fitness. With one week to go, I hired a sitter and ran ten miles around Mount Pleasant and up a few bridges (for “hill” training). It went almost too well. So I signed up.
We arrived later than we’d hoped Friday, picked up some food for the baby at Whole Foods, and went straight to get my race packet from the Northface store at Southside Mall (and also swing by Lululemon, Janie and Jack and Nordstrom’s–very convenient). The race volunteer informed me that I’d signed up too late to get a medal. I informed him, jokingly, that it was just more motivation to get top three.
The race started at 9 am Saturday, an hour after the full marathon kicked off on the same course. We drove across town from our hotel to the Center. I was immediately taken with the facility. It had the air and crispness of a ski resort, outlined by an expansive forest broken up by packed dirt trails. Inside the gates, it was impossible to tell you were within a hundred miles of a city, much less parallel to a major freeway.
We parked in the lot and I got out to warm up, grab some pins for my bib and scope out the start line. I usually get nervous before races. All races. But I couldn’t muster up any fear before this one. Part of it was having no real expectations, despite joking with the volunteer the night before, and part of it was knowing that, for the next couple of hours, I was going to be out in the woods with no distractions, no background noise and nothing but the rustle of the wind and some much needed peace of mind. (As long as I didn’t get eaten by a panther).
The starting line was across a bridge, past an outdoor restaurant set up with post-race beer, and down another set of stairs to a flat, packed dirt trail on the edge of an open field. With about ten minutes to go, we started lining up, and the waves were announced by bib number. I was surprised to be in Wave 1, and a little nervous looking at the runners surrounding me. They were all dressed like trail runners, a lot had hydration packs, bandanas, and one gritty runner/probable body builder was doing pushups in the middle of our wave. Dressed like a yuppie in my Lululemon with nothing but my Michael Kors sunglasses in my hand, I took my place in the back, avoided eye contact, and waited for the gun.
Our first lap was a loop around the field, and John and baby set up on the sidelines to cheer at about a quarter of a mile. I waved at my confused daughter and we headed away from the crowd and out into the woods, hitting our first hill. It was steep, but the road was easy, and I stuck with the pack as we maneuvered what was probably a fire road and headed back down towards the facilities. I passed John again at the end of the first mile, hitting about 7:20. I felt great, confident that I could tackle hills of that caliber for 12 more miles, enjoying the cool breeze, the soft trail beneath me and the sound of the rapids. We made a sharp right into the woods.
I immediately slowed, the trail narrowed to a steep, single-file downhill with tree roots and sharp rocks jutting out of every corner. A couple guys passed me as I tried to avoid slipping, just grateful this advanced section was at the beginning when there was still time to make up pace. I got distracted by a volunteer was taking pictures and almost missed the sharp right turn out of the woods and into an open meadow. I sped up as we crossed the flat field, and headed back into the woods on the other side.
Right to another steep hill. It was back to single file, and the guy in front of me was creating a long line behind us. I tried several times to pass him, but he couldn’t hear me with his headphones in. I finally pushed around him and picked it back up, until another girl, dressed in long black sleeves and pants, passed me on the left.
At that point, if I had counted right, I thought I was the 6th girl. I wasn’t sure how to approach this. I wanted to stay in the top ten, but we weren’t even close to mile three, my quads were on fire, I was out of breath and starting to get nervous by how treacherous the trail had been. I started thinking of the race in sections. Get through a 5k, then it’s only ten miles. Get through 5 more, you’re on the downside. Once you have 5k left, you’re gold. That’s what you’ve trained for. Runner logic.
The terrain never evened out, and by mile 3 the pack had dispersed. I saw very few other runners, a couple guys passed me on the uphills, and I passed a couple guys here and there. It wasn’t until about mile 4 that I caught up with one of the women I had been counting. She was incredibly sweet, and I stayed with her for a few minutes before I picked up the pace and she fell back.
I passed a guy whose allergies had gotten the best of him, then an excited hiker who cheered me on, but I didn’t see anyone else until about mile 6. Another girl, one that I had accounted for, was walking up the next hill as I approached. I shouted great job and moved on.
With no one around and an incredibly slow pace, the miles were taking forever, and it was eating away at my mental stability. I tried to just maintain, my legs were killing me, I was regretting wearing my Clouds and not something more trail appropriate like my Altra’s, my feet and ankles were hurting from maneuvering over logs, stumps, roots and rocks and I couldn’t believe we were barely halfway done.
Mile 7, I caught a guy I had been seeing on the switchbacks ahead of me, he agreed that this race was brutal. We crossed a wooden bridge and a bicyclist rode through, telling me to never break my pace. At that point, maybe because of the company or the recent flat terrain, I was feeling refreshed, so I continued speeding up through the next big hill.
Just before mile 8, I was gaining confidence. I had counted myself as 6th, then passed two girls, so I was feeling pretty good about 4th place, thinking I might be able to catch one more. Because so much of the race was slow, when I got to sections where I could actually run, I pushed myself, trying not to think about how many miles, and hills, we had left. I could see a flat section up ahead, so I hit a steep downhill fast.
I don’t know what I hit, if it was a rock or a root, but I felt the lurch as my toe caught on the ground. I tried to save it, but I was going too fast, and my momemtum slammed me into the dirt before I could stretch out my arms. I sat there for about 30 seconds, stunned, wimpering, watching the blood starting to seep from my hand, elbow and knees.
I shakily stood up, looking for my sunglasses that had flown out of my hand. They were gone. I checked for my rings, my phone, I felt my face and my hand returned blood. I took a couple tentative steps and realized my legs were ok, sore, throbbing, bleeding, but working. Then I thought, for a split second, that I should quit the race. I had my phone. It hadn’t broken. I could call for help. But who would come out here, to mile 8 of this insanse course, to painfully walk me back to the finish? I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if they called a helicopter. And I don’t like to fly. I heard some voices behind me and it brought me back to reality. I chose to keep going.
As a small group of guys caught me, they asked if I was ok. I remember saying that I thought I broke my wrist, then immediately tripping again, but catching myself. My balance, along with my confidence, was gone. The trail exited the forest and they passed by as we ran through the meadow, loudly joking about the giant hill to come.
I was completely out of my groove, feeling beaten down, just waiting for the inevitable pack of girls to catch me. It was a complete 180 from where I had been the mile before. I felt like I was starting from scratch, and all the work I’d put in before would mean nothing.
The hill was tough. Made worse by my swollen knees. And halfway up it started to rain. My watch said 9 miles. Four miles to go. I made the decision then that I wasn’t going to let this course beat me.
Up steep climbs, down slick and dangerous hills, I just tried to maintain my pace, picking it up where I could in flat areas and powering through the tough inclines. My watch was saying less than a mile to go when I hit the last hill and saw some stragglers from the marathon. I felt a burst of energy knowing that I was so close (and that I wouldn’t have to do this course TWO times like the people who signed up for the full), and tried to match the pace of a guy that had just caught me. The forest ended in a meadow and we ran by some people cheering, down a hill and through the original field before crossing the bridge to the finish. I gave it everything, my time was so far beyond my PR I wasn’t going for pace, I just needed to finish.
My husband said I looked angry crossing the finish line, but I think I was just gritting my teeth because of the pain. As I slowed to a stop, one of the volunteers handed me a medal. “I didn’t get a medal,” I gasped, my hands already on my legs, trying not to fall over.
“This ones on us.” He said, looking concerned. “Do you need medical?”
(This is the second race I’ve been asked if I needed medical attention at. At the Seattle Rock ‘n Roll marathon, my calf had seized up and I basically drug my leg up the final hill. I also got the nickname Peg Leg, Peggy for short).
My baby loved the red spots on my knees. John was a little more concerned and didn’t want to stick around too long, so he went down to ask the volunteers if we should wait for the awards ceremony or if I didn’t place in anything. He came back saying I had placed second in my age group, but didn’t have word on my overall finish.
I must have looked rough because the people kept coming, saying they were so proud of me and I was so brave. I didn’t feel brave, I felt sore and in pain and my entire body hurt when touched. I could feel my eye swelling. We waited until they announced the winners, the top three, then the age group, and I accepted by hat and got up on the stand proud, not just that I had finished, but that I had decided to run this race at all.
On the ride home, I checked the results about a hundred times until they were up. I’d placed 5th. Maybe I’ll see you next year NSTM, and maybe I’ll actually train.
Course: Brutal. Rough terrain, steep uphills and even steeper downhills. This was an incredibly slow course, made even harder by roots, branches and jutting rocks.
Route: Well marked. There were a few times I got nervous thinking I might have gone off course, only to see a flag up ahead. I would ask them to mark it better because I ran alone most of the race.
Hydration: Ok. I usually never take water during a race, but, maybe because of the pollen or the length running, I was overwhelmingly thirsty even after mile 1. I think they should have added more stations or I should have brought my pack.
Overall Event: Excellent. The whole day was extremely well organized, the medals are gorgeous and there was free beer at the end! I wouldn’t change a thing about the venue or the experience.
Training: It was a mistake not to train for this and expect it to go well. I would recommend long trail runs and hill repeats to get your body used to elevation changes and your ankles conditioned to running on rough ground.
Strategy: Go out fast. My splits were abysmal, but, because I went out with the front pack, I was able to maintain a great position. This course is not designed to play catch-up.