Sunday, February 5, 2012

Wonderful And Awful - Uwharrie Mountain Run 20 Miler

"Uwharrie is wonderful. And awful." I wrote that a couple of weeks before the Uwharrie Mountain Run after previewing the "easier" middle portion of the trail. Now, after running the full course for the first time, I stand by that description.

Over the course of the past couple of years, I've stumbled across a few races which somehow lodged themselves into a special place in my mind. Umstead Marathon and Medoc Mountain Trail Marathon being my favorites. I can now add a third to round out my top three races. Uwharrie joins Umstead and Medoc, but it's difficult to order them in any real way. They are all very different races and experiences. So, I'll just try to describe how I feel about them in terms of family.

Medoc is like your grandpa. He's old, and firm, but gentle and doting as well. He challenges you with the big climb, and then gently encourages you with the smooth rolling trail along the river. The loop course gives you that sense of comfort that comes with familiarity. Others have said this, and I will agree - Medoc is the perfect first trail marathon.

Umstead is like your father. He's constant, and disciplined, but supportive as well. He pushes you as hard as you need to be pushed in order to grow as a runner. He can teach you lessons through both your successes and your failures. I continue to learn from him.

Uwharrie is different. He is like the older, harder, gristly uncle who thinks your father has been too soft on you. Uncle Uwharrie loves you, but thinks that pushing you to the limit will make you a stronger person. As you struggle through his challenges, even at your lowest points, he tells you in no uncertain terms to "Grow up!". And then when you've made it through, he slaps your back and gives you your first beer. He's the uncle you love and respect. And also fear.

Recreation? That should be remediation.


The start, with lots of green "Umstead Tick Mob" shirts.


Lessons from Uncle Uwharrie
Lesson 1 - Don't Give Too Much Too Early - The start of Uwharrie is hard. Very, very hard. You "run" straight up a rock strewn gully for what seems like miles. Unless you are stupid, or extremely gifted, expect to walk most of this section.

Straight up "The Ditch"

There are a couple of rocks in the first section.

Me, followed by Ryan McCarty and Andrew Beckert.
All Uwharrie newbies...
Only a few more miles to the top.. sheesh!


 After struggling up the first big hill, there are several miles of fun, runnable trail, but you must be careful not to bomb down the hills too fast, or to attack the up hills too hard, except if you are running the 8 miler, in which case feel free to run like you are being chased by Sasquatch himself.

Ryan rockin' the kilt.
Andrew rockin' his first 20 mile run, ever. And I thought I was nuts...
The only real bridge on the 20 mile trail.

Lesson 2 - Eat Well - The first 8 miles or so are all about cooking up the proper Uwharrie running recipe. Take a large portion of difficulty, toss in a good helping of fun, and spice with fear and exhaustion. Consume with abandon.

The Uwharrie aide stations are simply fantastic. I had filled my pockets full of granola and honey gels before the race. At the end of the race, my pockets were still full. Uncle Uwharrie whispered sternly into my ear at the first aide station "Gels are for hair, boy! Have a banana. And a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And a chocolate chip cookie. And wash it down with some Coca Cola. That's a real man's race fuel."

And so, I did.

I can't tell you how stupid of me this was. I have a notoriously bad racing stomach, and fueling is something I've struggled with for over a year now. Trying an entirely new fueling "strategy" during a race is monumentally idiotic. Just the sort of thing I'm good at.

But somehow, all the aide station goodies actually worked. I looked forward to each station so I could have a coke and a cookie. I had noticeable surges after each station and never had any stomach discomfort. Uncle Uwharrie is a wise man. Next year, I'm trying the eggs and potatoes.

Lesson 3 - Embrace the Difficulty - I spent the first 10 miles or so trying to keep my feet dry, and for the most part I succeeded. But I paid a price in terms of time, energy and momentum. Eventually, Uncle Uwharrie got fed up with me and pushed me off a rock in the middle of a stream crossing. "Run through it, boy!" he ordered. After that, I splashed through every icy stream and clomped through all the squishy trail mud. And I loved it! I must have passed 20 people total at stream crossings.

You could spend 15 minutes looking for a way
around this crossing. Or 3 seconds splashing
through it.

Uncle Uwharrie Smiles, Sort Of
The final few miles are the toughest. There are many stream crossings, lots of sloppy trail mud, ledge trails I wouldn't let my favorite goat climb up, and a hill around mile 16 that seems to go on forever. And it started to rain (why I have so few pictures - my camera isn't water proof). But this was also my favorite part of the race. I started seeing lots of friends who were running back along the course in the 40 mile event and that really lifted my spirits. Congrats to everyone (Bart, Anthony, Heiko, Dan, Sean, Shannon, Karen and Brandy) I remember seeing on their second 20 miles of the 40 miler. You 40 milers are simply amazing!

Anthony flying down hill so fast, I couldn't
get him in focus.

Shannon, smiling her way down one of the
gnarliest sections of the trail.

Close to the finish, I started thinking about a time goal. Normally, I have all sorts of nonsense goals going into a race, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to set any goals for Uwharrie, other than to finish the thing without injury. I think I actually feared Uwharrie. I said as much to my wonderful wife the week prior to the race. She sympathized (somewhat...) but asked why I even wanted to run Uwharrie if I was scared of being injured. I didn't have a real answer. I still don't. I'm not even sure there is an answer. But I accept that.

Around the 14 mile aide station, I realized I had a shot at coming in close to 4 hours if I kept the same pace. But I was feeling a bit down.  I had lost my running buddies, Ryan and Andrew and had slogged through a bunch of miles nearly alone on the trail. Somehow though, in the nastiest part of the course, I found my second wind, and I flew. I ran easy, light and relaxed. I crossed the line tired, but feeling good. Not that I could have turned around and ran another 20 miles, like you 40 miler maniacs, but I felt really good about my run. I think I finished in just a bit over 4 hours. Not bad considering I had a vague notion that the race would probably take me at least 4 hours 30 minutes.

Uncle Uwharrie slapped me on the back, and grunted "Not bad, nephew. Not bad."

That's right! I wore my bedroom slippers for the race.
Even Uncle Uwharrie was slightly impressed.

My calf is cramping in this picture.
You're welcome!