At the end of the day my shirt laid heavy on my chest, my shorts clinged to my thighs and my shoes which were soaked through had been making a sloshing sound over the last few miles of the race. As much as I hated running in the cold. As often as I complained about being outside in the non-summer temperatures from November until late April, this day had my number. At the end of this race, on a day when the temperatures soared and dew point made the trails of North Carolina feel like the swamps of the Bayou I would have welcomed a below 30 degree day.
The heat and humidity of the south can be stifling. The heavy woven blanket of high humidity and relentless heat can suck the very life out of you. It’s hard just walking to your car at the end of a long work day. It’s doubly hard to want to do anything outside. As much as I enjoy running, at times, the summer conditions make me want to hide under a comforting blanket of air conditioning. During the dog days of summer my running lacks any spunk. Distances feel overwhelming, a five miler wears on my body like 10, 15 or 20. My long runs have me feeling weak, slow, and wondering if I am truly an ultra-runner at all. The reported “feel” like heat index cause my training days to suffer. Normally I tend to scale back my racing and I fall into survival mode awaiting the return of fall. But this year I decided to try a different tactic I decided to embrace the summer heat and run three monster races.
JUNE: Eastern Divide 50k, what can I say about a race that starts off with a 2,000 foot climb in the first five miles. Looking back, I can say, “I was not ready.” During the opening salvo, I took body blows to the lungs and legs. The jabs left me staggering, I was lost for words and oxygen. As I reached the summit my heaving chest and clouded mind would only allow me to formulate a few words, “that sure was a butt kicker.” My legs were spent, my shirt was soaked and I had 26 more miles to go. The ED50k was a well organized race…one that will truly test your vigor from the very beginning to the wild end. This race is a “Butt Kicker”.
I run 90% of my miles on flat to mild rolling hills. Honestly I hate to call them hills at all, more like slight changes along the road. I wasn’t really ready for what the ED50k had to offer, even though I thought I was. What elevation I do get to run over is limited to 1,000 feet spread over 12.5 miles. The near straight up climb to open this race got my attention in a hurry and set the tone of the day. I enjoyed the challenge even though my quads were exploding as my heart raced to feed my muscles. After the initial climb, the course is a collection of elevation changes on mountain trails among some picture-perfect backdrops of green forests and never-ending fire roads without much flat terrain.
Although the 30 miles still had us squarely in Virginia the final mile off the day felt more like a run through a Amazon jungle. This dash to the finish is best described as a narrow trail navigated over exposed roots, under low hanging branches perfectly positioned to impact your head, between boulders that restricted the path, and around moss covered trees. Breaking into a clearing the inflatable finish line on the grounds of the country club made famous by Baby of Dirty Dancing fame never looked more inviting. I was spent after finishing the ED50k and felt like I earned every second of my 6:55 minute finishing time, a good amount over previous 50k times run over more welcoming terrain. Check out the Eastern Divide 50k website.
An hard race no matter the distance can be filled with many highs and many lows. I tried to capture that drama in my book Running to Leadville.
JULY: Grandfather Mountain Marathon, It was a cool summer day in comparison to the feels like temperatures of 110+ just days prior. Standing on the track surrounding the Appalachian State football field I could feel a drop of sweat run down my back as the race director welcomed everyone.
The asphalt course runs 26.2 miles from the Appalachian State University on the track at the Kidd Brewer Stadium in the center of Boone, NC to the top of Grandfather Mountain. What feels like a downhill start quickly turned into a hair raising roller coaster ride with steep climbs and rapid decents while gaining elevation with every combination. Some of the downhill sections are so steep that a miss placed step I felt would leave me a tumbling heap of road rash and broken bones. The final challenge, a 2+ mile climb to reach the summit begins around the 24th mile marker and seemingly goes on forever. Highlighted by a number of false summits the endless black ribbon stretches out in front of you seemingly going on forever as bagpipes can be heard off in the distance. A final right turn appears out of now where delivering you to a gravel path leading to the make shift stadium and the large collection of Scottish Clans and the opening of the Highland Games.
Without being over dramatic for two reasons this was the most emotional finish of the 100+ races I have run. Circling the track during the final quarter mile of the race I crossed the finish line just as the National Anthem of the United States began to play. With a finishers medal around my neck, with a 4:39:49 finishing time to my credit, out of breath and on aching legs I stood proud with my right hand over my chest and wondered if this is what it felt like to win a Gold Medal in the Olympics. Second when I signed up for the race the date of the event did not register as anything of significant. The 28th of July, this day appeared as any ordinary day, that is until race morning. This race was held on my mother’s birthday, she passed the previous December 27th. As I ran up a mountain, I felt closer to her, as I stood listening to our National Anthem tears collected in my eyes and ran down my cheeks. Check out the Grandfather Mountain Marathon website.
AUG: MEDOC Mountain Meltdown 50k+, A run in the park with a bunch of friends, it’s as simple as that. Now add in roots, rocks, stairs cases, steep climbs, and the stifling heat and humidity of early August in North Carolina and you have the makings of a meltdown.
Four laps around MEDOC Mountain State Park, in Hollister, NC with 8.6 miles per lap and you have a 50k+ race that kicks my tail year after year. I first ran this race in 2013 as an opportunity to hang out with some “new” ultra-running friends. That first year, I slogged my way around the trails and finished all four laps earning my one of a kind “MEDOC” rock. I enjoyed my time on the trails and met a bunch of running pals I still call friends to this day. In 2016, I returned to MEDOC once again to earn another rock and to better my time from my first race. That plan did not go well. After three laps and while tied for first place, the scorching sun beat me down to the point that I could not answer the bell for the fourth lap. Returning to the meltdown again, 2017, I was determined to make things right.
I’m not really sure what makes the meltdown so hard (on me), is it the climbs? The technical trails? The heat index? The rocks, roots, horseflies, or is it MEDOC himself? MEDOC is a legendary monster the lives in the park, some say a crazy doctor others a kin to Bigfoot himself. I have no idea but the meltdown delivers a punch to the gut with each lap that eventually wears you down. This year I felt good completing my third lap. Making the turn, I refueled, signed in for the fourth lap, and headed out across the field where we would turn on to the trails and into the forest. As I made my way into the woods the bottom fell out of my running mojo. I felt at a loss for power, and motivation. Every step was a struggle to survive with my finish in question. With each step a DNF seemed more likely. As I was dragging my feet along the trail I remember a saying that I had told so many other people before. “When times get tough just keep moving forward, it will get better.” And so with footstep after footstep a death crawl turned into a jog, a jog turned into a run, and a run transformed into a finishing time of 7:52 and my second MEDOC Mountain Meltdown 50k+ rock. Check out the MEDOC Mountain Meltdown 50k plus Facebook page.
What will I do next summer when the heat and humidity return to south of the Mason-Dixon line?
What will I do when my shirts again weight heavy, my shorts cling, and my shoes make the familiar sloshing sound of summer?
Will I return to run these races again? Each race is great in its own unique way. Each race is far from the cookie cutter corporate marathon. They test your make up, your fitness and your desire. They offer wonderful setting, and challenging courses. Should everyone run them once, I highly recommend them.
Will I run them again?
Can we do it in November?