It could not have been raining harder when Brian and I woke up at 4:30 Sunday morning to get ready to head up to the Pisgah Mountain Trail Race. The rain was beating the windows and flooding the gutters while I made coffe and toasted a corn muffin. Big raindrops flew by the porch light as I changed into my running clothes and gathered my bottles and Gu's. I had to put on my raincoat for the first time since June just to haul all of my stuff out to the car.
The kids were spending the night at Grandma and Grandpa's so the house was weirdly quiet as Brian and I made our frantic last minute preparations (where was the Vasoline? where was Brian's wallet?) and departed for the race.
Driving on Rte. 95 I hit a big puddle and hydroplaned just as another car was passing me on the left. I clutched the steering wheel for dear life as the car skidded over the water in the dark. And then I slowed down. If we missed the start, so be it. I wasn't going to orphan my babies just to get to the race on time.
Half an hour into the trip we stopped to pick up Grace and Steve, who were also running. Grace was using the race as a long training run for the NYC Marathon and Steve was hoping simply to finish without completely blowing out his knee.
We arrived at the start with 20 minutes to spare and made quick work of getting our numbers and our complimentary loaf of Vermont bread. For the moment, the rain had eased up, though the sky was still ominously dark.
Grace is a much faster runner than I am, and Steve is even faster than Grace, but the three of us started together and planned to stay together all day.
Grace and me at the start.
We positioned ourselves at the back of the pack and shuffled up the road when the gun went off. Brian, who was running the 23K, was further up and we never saw him again.
The first two miles follow a long uphill on a hard-packed dirt road. We ran this very slowly to save our legs for the rest of the day. Once on the trail, the route for the 23K quickly splits off to the right (a tempting diversion!), while the 50Kers continue to the left. Grace and I ditched our long sleeved shirts at the trailhead. A woman standing there said she would bring them back to the finish line for us (which she did -- thank you!).
The first trail miles were wet but lovely, mostly on an old, wide carriage road with a few rolling ups and downs and one major climb. We walked the ups and ran the downs. The woods were drippy and foggy with an eerie darkness everywhere. It reminded me of early spring in Portland, OR and my long ago runs in Forest Park.
Coming into the first aid station, Steve decided to drop. His knee was hurting. The Chopat strap he had hunted down the night before the race was doing nothing for him, and he feared permanent damage.
So we said goodbye to Steve at the aid station in the rain.
But we hadn't seen the end of him. He reappeared like Lazarus of the Trail about 20 minutes later. Evidently the people at the aid station had no idea how to get him back to the start. They told him that the next aid station was much closer to the start/finish and he could walk out from there. So we had the pleasure of Steve's company for a few more miles.
I started to go a bit too fast over the next stretch of trail. I was out in front with Grace and Steve behind me. Those two are much faster than me, so I felt obligated to keep up a stiff pace. We marched quickly up the uphills and flew down the downhills. Barrelling down was fun, but I worried for my quads later in the race.
I fell going uphill (not downhill, thank my lucky stars) and almost wrecked my knee on a pointy rock. That slowed me down. Grace said I was going too fast. Point taken.
We came zooming down to the next aid station (roughly mile 10) and said goodbye once again to Steve. I looked at my watch and was shocked, SHOCKED to find that we had been running for almost 2 1/2 hours. It had taken us 2 1/2 hours to go 10 miles. Dodging the muddly puddles had taken a huge chunk of time out of our run.
We walked the long, steep hill up from the aid station. I was breathing hard, my heart was racing, and my stomach felt ready to let go. This was going to be a long, long day.
I tried to drink while walking and I took a couple of S caps to settle my stomach. By the top of the hill I was feeling a bit better. That climb, it turned out, was the low point of my race. Luckily, I never felt that bad again.
I don't remember much about the next section. Grace and I chatted away about everything under the sun. We didn't see another soul all the way to the next aid station about four miles later.
Just after aid station 3, we came upon a beaver dam.
Which made the trail all around it look like this.
After wading through this Big Muddy, we no longer made any attempt to keep our feet dry. The jig was up. Soggy, heavy shoes for the rest of the day.
The next section of trail was a roller coaster of steep ups and downs through a lovely stand of pines. I felt like Little Gretel wandering around looking for the witch's gingerbread house in the fog. It was surreal.
We started running the uphills here rather than walking. We were more than half way done now and our legs still felt good, so what the hell. We shuffled up at a pace slightly faster than walking. I hate walking uphill. The shuffle is faster and less of a drain on the hip flexors. We passed six or eight people in the hills, the most people we had seen all day. Everyone was taking about the mud and the puddles. We just nodded politely, said hello, and shuffled on.
It was a relief to come into the next aid station, because we knew we only had 10 miles left. 10 miles is nothing. We would definitely finish.
About a half mile into the 5-mile Kilburn loop I heard, "Hey, Pam!" It was my old friend, Penny. She and I had run Pisgah together last year and had a fabulous time gabbing away the hours. She was rehabbing then from a serious hamstring injury. We stayed in intermittent email touch, but the last time I saw her in person she could barely walk. I was volunteering at the Lake Waramaug Ultras and Penny stopped by to say that she wouldn't be running because her plantar fascia has just popped (pause for stomach dropping groan).
I never thought I see her on a race course again.
But here she was, toodling along at a decent pace on the Kilburn Loop. She told Grace and me that back in the spring she had been at mile three of a ten mile trail race when she felt (and heard!) her plantar facia pop away from the bones of her foot. She kept running another six miles until she couldn't take another step and had to be carried to the finish. She was told she would never run again.
Evidently she persevered until she found a surgeon willing to let her run. He completely detatched the fascia and now she runs with lots of tape and an orthotic insert.
The grim details of that story got us all the way back around to the aid station and down to the last five miles. Grace and I said goodbye to Penny and picked up the pace (or so we thought) to the finish line.
The last miles were nothing but a long slog through slippy, slidey, deep-seated mud. The trail had been torn up by an excavator putting in a new snow mobile trail and all of the rain had turned it to soup. It took us a full hour to run (and we did run every step of the way) three miles through this slop.
The final mile was back on the road, and we toughed it out to the finish, where our now clean and well fed husbands awaited us. Brian had a great race, finishing 18th in the 23K in 2 hours, 18 minutes. He would be a fantastic trail runner if only he would train a bit more. Alas.
Here we are at the finish, in a time of roughly 6 hours and 42 minutes, muddy to our knees and thrilled to be out of the soup.
And just a few minutes behind us was Penny, the miraculous, facia-less wonder girl!
I had been hoping to beat my time from last year, but with all of water and mud on the trail I was 20 minutes slower. One of the guys at the last aid station told us that the winning time this year was also 20 minutes slower than last year. So I don't feel too badly.
All in all it was a wonderful race. Beautiful trail and dramatic weather and good friends to share it all with. It doesn't get much better.