Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Leatherwood Mountain 50 miler, take two.

Welcome to Ferguson NC, home of the Leatherwood 50 miler.

Friday April 19th... driving into Wilkesboro`in a raging storm.  Roads were puddled, vision was addled, mountains were lost in clouds.  I found Dixie Donuts nestled on a random intersection, stopped for coffee and a donut, exhaled, and the combination made the drive all good.  The lady at the counter said I was one of several runners that day.  We were close.  I was nerves and road-fatigue.

We arrived at Leatherwood and, after much debate regarding camp or a dog-friendly hotel, the rain paused long enough to pitch a tent by the river.  Then, dominance and wind, a vicious storm resumed. We stripped the campsite, moved under a stable.

Kas heated plates of pasta and served us in the tent.  I devoured the meaty sauce, sopping the tomato sauce with black olive baguette and butter and hot tea.  Runners arrived, looked around, reunited.  The meal was delicious and my mind was settling into evening.  Pre-race dinner and meeting.  The storm continued and black mud was churned under the feet of runners, their crews, dogs, vehicles. 

Jennifer Pharr Davis (who holds the FKT for a female through-hike on the AT, maybe the MST also) spoke that night for the pre-race dinner.  A flood of people were showing up, representing North Carolina’s solid outdoor/running community.  There were also folks from Michigan, Ohio, Montana, Coastal South Carolina, Georgia.  Charlie Engels was lining up, Brandon Thrower, several MTC runners, with Mark Connolly and Tim Worden at the controls for the gig.  

7 am Saturday, 4.20.13, brought a crisp air and clear sun, a moment of silence for the victims of the Boston bombing, the national anthem, a quick “racers ready, go.”  We opened with a 9 min pace behind Tim’s bike for an easy roll out, where Jason observed that no one was pushing pace… exchange of names, home towns, notes of running,theories of what laid ahead, etc… Breathing accelerated, deepeneded, slowed, and the first mile chirped as we turned into the premier unpaved climb.  We kicked up the gravel road, then power hiked, then ran as the gravel road sliced into my first wrong trail... run back into the crowd towards a summit for a display of long-reaching vistas.  Mountain meadows and vast stretches of misty green.  A mountain lake.  We followed yellow ribbons and savored the scenic sections of Leatherwood Resort.  Horses grazed fields in morning ease and we continued running… another wrong turn, jamming down a paved road for a ½ mile or so (singing jane’s addiction “coming down the mountain,” feeling good), before rolling back to where we lost the course.  Four of us on that detour, and two took off again.
Into the trails.  Mountain meadows, high in fields of tall green grass in otherwise pale earth, a spring yet unpigmented … traces of spring in little white flowers on rock faces, like lace forming on the escarpment.  Real masculine mountain lines, jagged, cut, sucking down shoes, cool mud, cool morning, oily sweat of exertion.  altitude.   

This was not Umstead multi-use trails or even knotty mountain bike trails.  These were horse trails. Runners ganked for the trails for one day, but they were trails made by horses and traveled by horses …  Fist-sized stones were oiled by red mud on steep ascents and steeper descents.  Power climbing became the prominent traverse with downhills working at the knees and hips, jumping side to side like moguls to control speed.  Dead leaves covered trail and there was gamble and risk in each stride.  Clusters of people moved forward with howls of laughter as we slid on asses and skied on mud-caked shoes.  One fella lost both shoes in a mud crossing, losing one to the mud, and when turning to retrieve it, lost the other to mud.  We were maybe five miles in (excluding distance gained while lost) and over an hour had passed.  Leatherwood would be about endurance, not speed.

I had long lost Jason and a few others I’d hoped to run with.  Getting lost was demoralizing, adding work to a strenuous enough course, when a third wrong turn left me feeling disastrous.  “its just not your day” one guy remarked.  My spirit of competition weakened.

The storms of Friday had stolen ribbons and I was studying the terrain, less observant of the yellow-green ribbons, which blended into the new spring colours.  My competitive energies had dissipated and I was running my own trail in my own space in my own journey.  That is the gift of ultras, and I had found it earlier than expected at Leatherwood.  Again, as with most races, I found myself alone on some unknown trail in unknown territory.  I had to consciously remind myself to appreciate the moment, to be here in this stride, on this mountain, in this body.  I thought of the yoga class I normally taught at that hour, 9am.  I teleported myself into that yoga studio, on a mat.  My mind looped through mudmuck and skylight, but my thoughts were feeling gravity with every ascent. I was loosing light and purpose and I wanted it to be done.  
Then a lift of fog, a pleasure of running mountain.  And a sinking and grovelling.  Seeds of Cycle.

The trails were spectacular with beauty in sections, with other sections passing through filtered light of graybrown and becoming only the push of legs.  Peaks came and went, with the first seven miles surging upwards.  The course ribboned the surrounding mountains with some really nice runnable sections and then deposited us into a community of homes on a road for an aid station.  Gummy bears and heed and salt.  Peanut M&Ms.  The road split into a dirt road, very runnable if you had legs, flat and fast… gorgeous pastures fenced by powerful oaks, beech trees, cypress.  Mountain cabins.   Shed roofs made of road signs.  The sun was brilliant and the sky was as deep as any cerulean in a tube of oil paint.  Dogs ran up, licking hands and pressing their muzzles into palms.  I do love a dog and this was a mental lift.  The morning was fresh and the air was clean and miles accumulated with a relaxed effort.  The reprieve of the opening 25 mile loop was soon before me: a shin-deep river crossing of mountain cold water that fully reinvigorated the legs and mind.  My feet absorbed the coolness, my legs boiled their excess heat and swelled into the water.  I paused for a few extra moments as the sand rolled through bruised toes.  

Then it was time to get the hell off the dirt road and back onto the trails.

More trails, more ascents, descents.   I was harvesting intense climbs, short but steep, and was still alone.  I was brutal at moments, overwhelmed at moments, grateful at moments. I was soon joined by two others and, as I ran down a hill, I caught my right shoe on a stride which folded my leg back, bringing my right knee full onto the edge of a rock as my left leg anchored my movement back to vertical.  I felt the stone cut in across the lower patella.  I hobbled for a moment, tested the movement of the joint, sprayed some heed across the wound, checked the blood flow.  Gashed knee at mile 23,  because I knew someone was going to get hurt on this course… another 2 miles to the stable, the start/finish/loop area, and I asked for some disinfectant. 

ugh. some blood & the pause.  

At the stable, the base of the run, I sat.  I was waiting for a bandage and bactine for a good forty minutes.  Talking dogs, talking running, talking weather …  Slowness of the medic, a kind-faced man with a mountaineer’s sense of time, with my seemingly thick curtain of flesh folded back from the knee, exposed mess and blood.  Again, all competition drained from my mind and legs. "Thanks" I said as he taped my gauze and told me that he had gone to the same college as my wife.  A helpful soul who told me to pay attention to that knee and to wash it.  

I had lost all concern for time, for racing, and I walked down to the camp to check on my dog.  I set up the pocket rocket, boiled some coffee, had a hot sugary cup of Columbian .…. A good hour break (debating privately and seriously a drop), a change into new socks and trail shoes, half the race behind me and the other in front, I ran up ambush trail to start the second loop at roughly 12:30pm.  Several bodies had passed, my mind was in an unsettled space, and I vowed to finish the second loop if only to achieve 40 miles for a technical ultra distance.  

Kyote ascending Ambush Trail.

Up and up and up we climbed, finding some rolling trails to jog, and though my garmin had died, I estimate 15 min/m at best.  Then the complement to climbing, massive body jerks down supersteep leaf&rock&scree, running tight moguls, jamming hips and trying to control acceleration in the falling momentum of body.  Here we found some more mountain beauty, the reason I’d come, and my bad space lightened a little.  The ipod came on around mile 28, loosening my funk.

Less than runnable course.  Horse trails occupied by runners.  Endless scrambles that left the legs gasping.  Areas that were runnable were muddy, tarry, or my legs were just too anaerobic to push a decent pace.  The muscles of cycling and stair running proved the key muscles of the race.  I had been running on a treadmill on alternating 4.5% - 10% grades and then jogging/power hiking to a peak grade of 15% for 8 weeks.  Trail miles every other run. Core work and power yoga to build the back and abs and lungs, though I’ve had a sprained psoas for 6 months which limits core work and yoga postures.   But that was my training, and it would’ve been fine for a lesser course.  I considered dropping. I considered cutting course.  I kept moving forward though.  Relentless forward motion as they say, albeit sourced in a determination to just finish the loop.

More of the same, muddy single track with rare bursts of rolling trail, gravel road, one sun-soaking snake stretched out and lazy, miles of ascent, reggae, an out-and-back that passed flat, perfect green meadows of long green grasses.  Rich and rewarding.  Another section felt like western states with sunbaked clay, juts of rock, a sweet overlook.  I finished the second loop, traded bracelets, paused and exhaled the forty miles of work behind me …. brilliant volunteers... the knee was sore, my mind was grumpy.  I saw Kyote, Kas, Maya enjoying the sun.  I grabbed S-caps, had amazing homemade breads, pocketed a couple more gels, was off.  I joined Brew Davis and Brandon Thrower to get up the last loop of 10 miles, knowing that I had to get out of the stables... a body in motion stays in motion.
Power hiking, an effort at peeing ( far too rare in the day), and some conversation… I eventually ran on, trying to keep my wits and legs intact, trying to smell the barn, but the last loop was straight fukn gnarly and my 1.5 hr projection spreading to nearly three hours.  The worst series of false summits and power climbing I’ve ever experienced were about 7 miles in, meaning 47 miles in, and the misery continued for a mile, leaving me absolutely bankrupt of energy and momentum.  I was beat down, and my mantra became “just finish," the gloom occasionally interrupted by a misfits song, a groundation rift, a view.  

At the last aid station, a local fella told me there was a bear at the bottom of the trail and I just figured wrestling a bear was part of the race.  Fortunately I never saw a bear, though the final three miles were horror on the quads and femurs like a bears teeth and claws… the trail dumped into the paved roads of Leatherwood resort, tennis courts and cabins... in the final mile of non-technical running, I thought of my friend Lee who had recently died... sad moment... I thought about work, friendship, family, things I’ve lost, things I’ve gained.  I meditated my existence and I gave thanks for being clean, sober, healthy.  I sent namaste vibes to the mountains and those still traversing them... i continued into a tangent onto trail behind cabins before emerging to the final paper-lamped chute and finish gate.  Eleven hours and fifty one minutes, with eleven hours of those being actively hiking/running 50 miles of mountain trail. Rarely have I been so proud of finishing something.

Rachel, Tim, Brew, Doug and many others finished up soon thereafter.  David dropped due to aggravated knee tendons.   A dozen others dropped mid-course, though many had dropped in recent weeks from the 50 miler to the 50k or 10 mile race. 

Leatherwood was a powerful run, and my family was key to my finish.  Kas pushed me, quietly but firmly (once I finished my coffee) back onto the second loop.  Her glare was reassuring, rectifying, threatening, like a sergeant might glare.  Kyote had great fun and was much help.  Kas had already taken our camp back down to the river, where I shortly collapsed into the bag for a cold nights sleep, relieved to have rest.

 Le Fin.
Sunday morning was a slow breakdown of gear, a drive to Boone for breakfast at the Bagelry.  We stretched legs on King Street then drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway where we hiked a mile or two of the mountain-to-sea trail.  Kyote ran and ran that trail, falling two, three, four times, but getting back up and hitting it again.  Kas and I noticed that the trail was surrounded by debris and the trees look like they had been splintered by tornados.  No other hiker was seen, nothing but quiet and air and evergreen and the white circles blazed on trees.  Perfect walk through the woods with the family, one of those moments I live for, and my gratitude swelled ... as did my feet and legs, but not beyond expectation.  Hitting the road to return home, there was an easy vibe, a will to be home, but not a rushed thing… we allowed the time to be here, and here, and here, to be in the journey.  That’s the lesson taught by ultras, especially Leatherwood.

Props to runners, volunteers, crews, dogs, and especially Mark and Tim for putting this whole mess together.   I hope to be a part of the Leatherwood Ultra 2014 to see the evolution of this race, its participants, and its times. 

Overlook, Blue Ridge Parkway.

More of the MST Scenery.
Mountain to Sea Trail.