Today, I bring you the story of how took a trip to Pickens, South Carolina so I could fall down a mountain.
Yes, I fell down a mountain. And in typical fashion it was not because I tripped on a super technical section of roots or rocks. I either caught a pebble or little nub of a cut tree.
Of course, that single event is bookended by so much more. Ultimately, this is that tale.....
As the calendar flipped from 2016 to 2017, I began to look for some reasonable races where I could travel and expand my horizons through new challenges. Last month's Iron Horse was another such example. In doing my research, I stumbled upon a race called Foothills 50K (aka Conquer the Rock) held at Table Rock State Park in (you guessed it), Pickens, SC. It looked like a challenging race with 18,000 ft of elevation change as we would run 3 loops up and down Pinnacle Mountain.
About Pinnacle Mountain: According to my sources at Wikipedia, they tell me, Pinnacle Mountain is part of the Blue Ridge Mountain range. Other sources, including RD Matthew Hammersmith, inform me that there was a fire on the mountain late last year. As to the validity of the first, I cannot confirm or deny the accuracy but as to the second, my first hand experience there this past weekend does indeed confirm a fire took place on the mountain. (It's my job to sort through the facts so you can get to the bottom of things.)
Now what really made this a possible race destination was the daily emails I get from Frontier Airlines telling me of deals to Charlotte, North Carolina. We are talking reasonable prices if you are good flying with only a backpack that can fit under the seat in front of you. Thankfully, I excel at this! Using handy-dandy Google Maps, I was able to learn that Table Rock State Park was a two hour drive from Charlotte Douglass Airport. One of my travel criteria is that the race be no more than 2 1/2 hours from where I fly in. My reason for this emphasis is to make sure I do not tax myself with a longer than necessary drive. Of course, if I am not flying and staying regionally, that drive time number can rise.
Due to the airfare and distance, I put the race on my calendar for March 4th. That doesn't mean I registered right then and there for it. Unless there is a sell-out risk, I've taken the approach that I'd rather make sure I'm not wasting more money than need be. It is also why I opt to reserve cars through the rental companies themselves at the rate I can cancel. Same goes for hotels. And since I try to keep airfare down, I minimize loss. (Can you tell I obsess over the economics of logistics?) If I can manage to book Southwest at a comparable rate too, all the better.
To make things happen, I booked a flight out of PHL on Frontier on March 3rd that got me into Charlotte at 12pm. From there it was an Enterprise booking until 4am Sunday morning as I was flying Delta back to PHL via Detroit around 6am.
Lodging for the most part was left alone for a while. Now, this tale is not entirely a solo adventure as my friend from Trail Whippass (and a fellow local runner), Kiran was doing the same race! While we booked our flights separately, our travel was nearly identical! Her flight back was 15 minutes after mine but we ended up on the same Frontier flight down. What that meant....split expenses! YES! Cheaper traveling for the two of us. Of course, we waiting until the week before the race to handle lodging. (Which is the same week that I officially registered.) We had a game plan. Friday night, stay near the race. Saturday night, in Charlotte closer to the airport. Now the really awesome part was we managed to get a cabin in Table Rock State Park for 1 night. This took some finessing as they typically require a two night stay. More or less, you find a single night available that is bookended and take that.
By far away, these cabins were stellar. Now I could really go on about how awesome these are. All of them date back to the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and have been lovingly cared for. I felt fully relaxed. Full kitchens, heat (as in actual heater system) and to our surprise upon arrival...WIFI!!!!!!! The wifi was great because cell service was non-existent on my phone. Because I had a Google Fi phone, I could easily make a wifi call. Also, because we had a kitchen, on the way from the airport, we picked up food to cook. Better then trying to figure out where to eat in the middle of nowhere. The final touch were the plush blankets. Oh yeah. Ideal, sit and read environment that I usually can experience most when in Maine.
Anyways, since we arrived near 4pm and there was a packet pick-up in the park, we stopped at the cabin to drop off our stuff before heading over to get our bibs. That was a super quick process which enabled us to get back to relaxing and eating quicker before bedtime. (Yes, I'm cutting some of the boring out but I will tell you I did get a third of the way into Sarah Vowell's Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.)
With an 8am start time, it made Saturday morning so easy. No extra early rise and shine. We got to the race location around 7:15 - 7:20. Since the race was providing Tailwind, I loaded up my Nathan ExoDraws and my Nathan Peak with the good stuff. My fueling strategy was to use the Exo bottles for the first two loops and the Peak for the last. Now I was still going to run with the Peak the whole time in case I needed to tap into it since we got aid at the start/finish of every loop, so a ten mile stretch. As usual I had some ShotBlocs taped to the bottles. First loop would be with one bottle, the second with the other...and as stated before neither for the third loop. I also would be stuffing a handful of Gummy Bears in my face each time.
Since it was a little chilly, I went to the start line wearing black gloves and my Trail Racing Over Texas t-shirt. For the course, I opted to wear my Montrail FluidFlex FKTs. Now I did consider wearing a pair of LaSportiva Helios SR's due to the downhill as they have the extra grip in the heel but I felt they run a little too tight for a 50K. From the 'gun', it was clear that it was going to be a two person race between myself and last year's third place finisher, Eli White as we went out to the front very quickly for the road section that starts and finishes every loop. We chatted away and were in lock step all the way up the mountain. As we got closer to the top, we really noticed signs of where the mountain burned. Eli pointed out a wonderful view from Bald Knob around a mile from the summit. That last mile really kicks you in the unmentionables, especially the last 1/4 mile before the summit of Pinnacle Mountain. Once we cleared the summit, Eli asked to go around and moved by me on the downhill. He was like a rocket! With two more loops, I was not going to take too many risks at that point. So he opened a lead. My goal was to not let it get too large so I moved quick by cautious. Eventually coming down the Ridge Trail we blend into the popular Table Rock Trail which goes to the summit of the adjacent peak to Pinnacle. Here, all the runners we going to encounter hikers for much of the day. (The Pinnacle Mtn Trail had some as well but not nearly as many.) And it is in this stretch between the junction of trails and road, it happened.
I fell down the mountain.
I had just passed a group of hikers on a downhill slope and hit a slightly level patch where I could open some. As I was about to hit some gas, I caught my toe on something and felt hard. My right side took the brunt of the fall. Yet, I managed to do a number on my left knee too. Not only that, I nearly destroyed my handheld as I was leaking Tailwind all over the trail. Amazingly, I was able to put the bottle components together and all was well. I had some ShotBlocs that went flying. And while I did not discover this until after the race, I broke the little spring loaded do-hickey where I can put things and tighten them in place on my Nathan Peak.
I got up and started moving again. I had been banged up pretty hard. I looked down and saw blood from my knee and then noticed it from my right elbow. Negative thoughts began to swirl in my head. Quitting became an option. I had two miles to go in the loop. Already I was thinking the fall cost me the race. Yet, in a sign of mental strength, I told myself I did not want to DNF another race that I traveled to. Regardless, I wanted to finish. Still, if I felt I would do myself harm continuing only then I would stop. My spirits were boosted by seeing Eli just leaving the Start/Finish as I was coming in. He was about two minutes up on me. I ran into the 'Barn' and made the decision due to the fall I wanted both my hands free for the whole race. I ditched any ExoDraw bottles. Also, with being out of whack, I did a quick pee break. This all meant a little slower than usual but I felt it was appropriate.
My brain also told me that if I had any shot of winning it had to be because of going uphill. Once I got off the road and past the Nature Center (and the pretty waterfalls) it was time to climb. I told myself to push a little in the spots I paused a tad on the first lap. Make up time. Amazingly, when I got to Bald Knob, a hiker told me Eli was a minute up. Ok...I'm doing well. On a switchback portion, I caught a glimpse of Eli. A glimpse because he was nearly at the summit which meant he was flying down hill gaping me. This time, I had little choice but to push it a little more on the downhill. Quick and alert! No problems the second time down. Again, Eli was just leaving the Start/Finish when I came in. Only difference was he had a little more time up. It was still a close race. Yet, I was beginning to feel resigned to the fact I was going to be second. Still, I was not quitting but I felt the third climb a bit more so I was REALLY SURPRISED to hear from the same hiker farther down the mountain this time that Eli was only a minute up. Then before we ever reached Bald Knob, I caught him!!!! Thinking if I could strike anywhere, it was now so I made an effort to pass. This lasted a little bit until we hit the 1/4 mile Sh*tkicker before Pinnacle's summit. My body said no more. It's day was done. Eli took back the lead and once he hit the summit, I heard a shot of joy and down he went. My legs were toasted. As much as I wanted to run down, my pace was seemingly in what felt like neutral. I was only moving because I was going down. With it now being early afternoon, traffic on the trail was greater and that did nothing to help me do anything but stop when I hit groups usually on stone steps that I had to use the steps as groups flanked the sides that I utilized the first couple of loops. Despite giving it a fight, I knew I was not going to caught Eli and just focused on finishing in one piece.
As I was finishing my third loop, I saw Kiran go out for hers. She was in great spirits! (Plus, now I got a sense of how long it was taking her.)
So in the end, despite a good effort especially climbing, I got whipped on that downhill by 11 minutes. Both Eli and myself went under the course record (5:23:25 to 5:34:33) as did the next two finishers. (One of which was last year's winner, Darian Smith.)
Did I want to win? Absolutely. However, I am far from disappointed with my effort. I got hurt and fought back to reset the race with 5 miles to go. (Yes, I lost 11 minutes in 5 miles.) This was by far the toughest 50K I have ever done. It is a great challenge that I am only happy to have participated in. It reminds me that while I like to think of myself as a good downhill runner, I have room to improve there but it requires moving out of a comfort zone by taking risk. It also reaffirms that I can climb well on long steady climbs.
Following the race, I confirmed the campground bathrooms had showers (Thanks, Darian!) and bought a bar of Irish Spring from the state park's Country Store down the road. It helped to get clean of the blood. Plus, that allowed me to feel fresh while waiting for Kiran. I thought I would read some but that didn't happen as I poked around to the store some more again later and ended up buying a t-shirt. Not the one I really wanted which had a WPA era style graphic but still a nice long sleeve. In the process had a nice chat with the woman working the register. She told me that this was the first weekend of the season they were open. She also told me how she took a trip up to Allentown once and told me about tea ordering. In the south, it is just tea for iced tea. Her travel mates did not know this during said trip up north.
Anyways, I hung out back at the finish and got to see Kiran finish. She did awesome! And she also had the attitude of change and go. We took the scenic way out of the park and caught some views of what we ran. The drive to Charlotte was pretty uneventful which was nice.
Our room at the Residence Inn was a nice space to finish the day. We both ate leftovers from the prior night. Of course, I tried to venture out for food but Panera closed before I got to it and a diner effort was met without any attention to be seated. At that point eating at a place would take too long. Still I enjoyed the minor experience of walking around as it was a pleasant evening of no jacket required.
Eventually it was lights out and I did not sleep well. (I took the couch in both the cabin and the hotel. Both were sleeper sofas but much like I do at home, I just sleep couch style.) My scrapes from the day were angry with me which led to the lack of comfort. And since they were on both sides of my body, I could not side sleep. Still, I caught 3 hours total before getting up around 3:20.
To the airport, we went. We got to security just in time as the line ballooned behind us! I hung out with Kiran at her gate until it was time for me to board my flight (I left a little earlier).
And after a pair of flights and a 2 1/2 layover in Detroit where I grabbed breakfast, I was home.
Now that a few days have passed still a little banged up but I did my first real run today. 6 miles into the office.....
Of course, the result and physical impact has me rethinking some upcoming options of races. Thankfully, none of them require a full commitment right now so I can heal my wounds and get back out there to do the damage I want to than have it done to me.