Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Top 'o the Morning to Ya! - Hanging Rock 11K Trail Race

My heart was racing, even though I had promised myself that I wouldn't run hard. Approaching the top of Moore's Knob I couldn't tell if my blurry vision was due to the clouds rolling across the ridge, or the absence of oxygen in my brain. I found the throbbing carotid artery on my neck and counted off heartbeats for about 5 seconds. Twenty. Multiply by 12, and... wait, that couldn't be right! Although, my heart did seem to be attempting to bust out of my rib cage. I couldn't blame it. I might do the same if I were trapped in a prison run by a sado-masochist, who even at this very moment of near meltdown, couldn't wipe the smile off his pained face. God, I love trail racing!

The little race at Hanging Rock State Park, this year falling on Saint Patrick's Day, and hence subtitled "Top Of The Mountain To Ya!", is becoming one of my absolute favorites. The beautiful wife and I had run the previous year's race, and we both enjoyed it. Well, me more than her since that was her first real trail race (I'm cruel like that), and I spent the entire race scampering around her taking pictures. This year, I wanted to run just a bit harder. The race was only two weeks after a tough Umstead Trail Marathon, so I planned a medium effort run, just to start getting my legs back under me. As usual, my plans and reality didn't align.

Profile from last year's race. Courtesy of Iris.

Chasing Leprechauns
There were two races this year - a 4 miler, and an 11K. The courses overlapped for the first couple of miles, with the smarter 4 milers avoiding the climb and descent of Moore's Wall Loop Trail. The 4 mile race also claimed to have a "Catch the Leprechaun" race within the race, which I thought was just a holiday joke, until a runner in full leprechaun attire shot off a side trail to lead the race just after the start.

Trail runner Corey Griffith played
the part of the leprechaun. His pot of gold
is still out there, somewhere... 

I'm getting better about starting a race at a sane pace. I hit the first mile mark in just under 9 minutes. Normally, I would have busted out of the gate and flamed out with a sub-8 minute first mile in such a short race, but not this year. Not two weeks after Umstead. I forced myself to walk up the steep gravel road to the Wolf Rock Trail head, chanting "Don't race. Don't race!" while other runners streamed past me. On Wolf Rock Trail, I was stuck in traffic for a while, which was good at keeping my pace under control. Arriving at the single aid station of the race, the 4 milers split off and the rest of us nutjobs started up the long, rocky, steep ditch that is the western portion of the Moore's Wall Loop Trail. About 10 yards after making the turn onto the long course, the runner immediately in front of me stopped, turned around, and ran back down the trail yelling "No! No! NOOO!" I'm not sure if he was a 4 mile racer who had made the wrong turn, or if he was just smarter than everyone else.

I'm Not Racing!
Me, not racing.
The Moore's Wall Loop Trail route was reversed from last year, when we had to climb the endless stone stairs to Moore's Knob, and then descend the western ditch on the loop. When I learned that the loop had been reversed for this year, I hated the idea. I had hoped I would be walking up to Moore's Knob on the stairs and actually running a good portion of the descent. I didn't think I would be able to run down the uneven, grit covered stone stairs without leaving a bloody impression of my face on the ground somewhere along the way.

So, when the steepness of the climb set in, I let the small group of three or four people I was running with, fade into the distance while I power walked the rocky ditch up to the ridge. Within minutes, they were gone, leaving me to enjoy a nice quiet hike.

And I really did enjoy the hike up to the ridge. The clouds were sweeping across the mountain, wrapping the forest in a mysterious, but beautiful veil of cool gray mist. The woods were quiet except for the thin sounds of the breeze blowing through the still naked branches of the winter forest. The small crunches of my footsteps on the trail and my labored breathing were the only sounds spoiling the near perfect peacefulness.

Nearing the top of the trail, I found that all the sound, as well as my vision, was fading away, to be replaced only by the hammering rhythm of my struggling heart. Even power walking up to the ridge had pushed me over the redline. Trust me, it's one tough trail!

OK, I'm Racing!
Me, racing.
Lucky for me, I redlined just as I reached the ridge. Within a few yards, I recovered and started running again. I stopped thinking about pacing altogether, and just ran, enjoying the feel of the chilled clouds sweeping over the trail along the ridge top of Moore's Knob. Scrambling over rock outcroppings and along the steep slopes near the ridge, I found myself running faster and faster. And smiling uncontrollably! I hit the endless stone staircase descent in just a few minutes, but instead of slowing down, I sped up. I flew down the mountain, sometimes leaping down several steps at a time, sometimes running down the edge of the trail next to the steps, but seeming to go faster and faster. Fear only slowed me down for a moment when my footing shifted on a particularly long leap down 4 steps, but for the most part I just flowed like water down the mountain.

Arriving at the bottom of the trail, and with less than a mile of flat lakeside trail to the finish, I let everything go and ran hard. I raced, even though I promised myself I wouldn't. I'll forgive myself eventually.

There are a handful of moments that I am blessed with each year when running trails. Moments of pure sublime beauty and joy. Times when I am totally consumed by the beauty of trail running, of the moment, and of life itself. Flying down the trail off Moore's Knob, on those brutal stone stairs, I was lucky enough to capture one of those moments. Thanks Hanging Rock.