Saturday, January 23, 2010

Some dirty thoughts about today's Trail Race

So there I am, skittering down a slope, sidestepping a pointy rock here, avoiding a nasty root there, then grabbing at a small tree to keep from slipping in the mud and breaking my tailbone.

And all along, I'm thinking, now I know what it feels like to be an action hero.

Daniel Day-Lewis in "The Last of the Mohicans" maybe. Or Mel Gibson in "The Patriot." Hauling butt through through the woods with a crazed look on my face, bounding over fallen tree trunks, trying not to get taken out by enemy fire --

Oops, sorry, getting a little carried away. But seriously: Those of us who ran this morning's inaugural Charlotte Running Company Trail Race on the treacherous paths at the U.S. National Whitewater Center certainly risked limb out there ... and maybe even life, once or twice.

Almost two-thirds of an inch of rain fell in Charlotte Thursday; Friday was cool and damp; and at 7 a.m. Saturday -- an hour before the starting gun was to go off -- a light but steady mist was falling. These are good conditions if you're planning an outdoor mud-wrestling event, but are less attractive if you're about to run a 13-mile race on single-track trails in the middle of the woods on a cold day.

Nevertheless, it made things far more interesting for the 70 people who completed the 13-mile race with me, as well as for the 111 who finished the 8.2-mile run and the 166 who participated in the 3.8-miler.

As this was my first "real" trail race, I don't have a good feel for where this course ranks on the difficulty scale (hopefully some experienced trail runners will read this and provide some feedback along those lines).

But I can tell you that I rolled my ankle several times, I almost slid off a cliff into a lake, and there was one climb -- around Mile 5 -- for which I probably could have used a ladder. Some of the switchbacks were brutal, passing was sporadically a cross-your-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best experience, and those of us who went the distance encountered a stretch during Mile 10 where there was no choice but to motor through ankle-deep mud puddles.

The inherent risks make the CRC Trail Race the craziest event I've ever done, with the exception of perhaps last year's Krispy Kreme Challenge up in Raleigh (which really was more imbecilic than crazy, to be honest). Plenty of runners who traverse trails regularly would not say the same thing, I suspect, but for a road racer like me, I make that statement with no qualms.

I mean, whereas in a typical half marathon I can often zone out for periods of time, my brain activity had to be off the charts this morning. Every misstep was a potential header into a riverbed, or a twisted ankle, or a tree branch to the temple. Especially when negotiating fast and steep downhills, my mind was racing to make snap judgments as to where the slickest mud wasn't.

I'm also unaccustomed to such erratic pacing. For the first several miles of the single-track sections, you're at the mercy of the people in front of you. It takes incredible bursts of speed to pass within the narrow windows of time and space there are to do so. Traffic can slow to a crawl on the more heartbreaking ascents. The Garmin plays tricks on you due to there being so many hairpin switchbacks: It gets confused, can't compute some of the distance, and spits out splits that seem too slow to be accurate. Only during the later going, after the 8.2ers had dropped off, could I set my own pace; but I was essentially all alone for the last five miles or so -- which can be another kind of mental challenge.

Still, as friends had been suggesting throughout the week, conquering the conditions really made finishing feel like a hard-core accomplishment. I'm satisfied with my time (1:50:34, 31st out of 70 -- there were some goood runners out there). I'm glad I didn't fall, and relieved I didn't get hurt. Plus, I got a little taste of what it's like to be an action hero.

But before I sign off and pop "Last of the Mohicans" into the DVD player, a few other quick items of note regarding the Charlotte Running Co. Trail Race:
  • The course was exceptionally well-marked. I imagine the trail system out at the Whitewater Center can be rather dizzying, but there was no point at which I felt lost. Kudos to race director Donny Forsythe and his team for their good work. Water support was also better than I was expecting, although the staggering of aid stations was slightly unpredictable.
  • The final mile was ... not a mile. After the Mile 12 marker, the race was essentially over but for a stretch run that couldn't have been much more than 800 meters long. My Garmin had the course at a little over 11.3, but Carolina Trail Run Series creator Marcus Barton told me afterward about how all the switchbacks lead to fuzzy GPS math, and I believe him. Strangely, though, while Marcus had the course short (at 12.5ish), Queen City Timing's Dennis Joffe estimated the distance at 13.5ish and told us our per-mile pace was actually a little faster than what's listed in the official results.
  • I think it's ridiculous that the Whitewater Center charged runners the $5 parking fee. This race was a free ad for the facility -- and the best kind of ad: a taste of its trails, which I'm sure many first-time visitors to the WWC would be excited to return for at a later date. Let me be clear that this is not Donny's fault. I would hope the center will reconsider its policy at future races.
  • Colleen Angstadt was the top overall female in the 13-mile race with a 1:42:13, while Lat Purser won in 1:23:25. 8.2 winners were Jocelyn Sikora (1:06:28) on the women's side and Keith Mrochek (1:03:08) on the men's. In the short race, Amy Fach and Derek Kaat had the best times: 29:51 and 26:41, respectively.


Los said...

I share your sentiments on the challenge of today. This was also my first trail race. I too am usually a street racer/runner. I competed in around 10 events last year and was looking for a new challenge. Let me just say "Wow!!". I took Donny's advice from an email response he sent me and ran the trails last week. It was slippery, but not like today. It was clear why we signed the waiver. Hats off to the folks who can run these events with blazing speed. I am much more impressed with the physical demands it takes for an event like this. I'm just an average runner who doesn't have a prayer of winning anything. I just enjoy sport and the challenge of physical competition. I was trying to describe the conditions and challenges to my wife and was struggling. I just read her your comments and she had a much better picture. I ran the 8 miler today and loved how well the course was marked. I didn't have that luxury last week and actually ran farther than I wanted to. But it ended up giving me a great reference for today. It's funny you made the same comment about mental stimulation that I made to a friend last week. There were times today that I forgot how far I had been or how tired I was. I was so focused on the next step. I don't know if this was considered a big turnout for a trail race, but I didn't have the feeling of being held back by other runners. I may have been lucky in picking my spot when we entered the trails. I also had never been passed so many times along a course. There were several guys who passed me on one of those ladder hills. Overall, I enjoyed today's event and would do it again after some adequate training. I finished the 8-miler around 80 minutes which was my goal.

Anonymous said...

Could not agree with your comments about charging for parking. What kind of arrangement does he have where parking is chargd and then next month at another race,(sponsored by another group), there is no parking fee. I was also kind of suprised that the allowed the race to go on because of the conditions. Usually the WWC closes the trail to runners and bikers when the trail is as wet and muddy as it was today. Great event at a tremendous facility.

Anonymous said...

I ran the 13 miler as well and 24 hours later my legs are trashed! It was an excellent race and I had a great time. I will definitely run again next year.

Anonymous said...

How does this compare in difficulty to the Uwharrie Mountain run, anyone done both?

Jonathan Clayton said...

Haven't done both...but am doing the 20 miler feb. 6th. So, I'll let you know.

Great race though! And the trail was very well marked.

yarborg said...

I only did the 3.8 and rolled my ankle as well about 100' or so into the trail. Nice way to start the run. I am also a street runner and although I had had good shoes I was unprepared for the race. I would like to go back to the course and train but am afraid I might get lost running through the trails. Great post. I look forward to more.

Andrew said...

Thanks for the write-up! Great for someone like me who couldn't make it out due to injury! :( Really planned on going and reading your report is the next best thing.

and whoever mentioned the Uwharrie run... would be interested to hear how this compares (terrain)

Anonymous said...

is the uhwarrie run still alive? I could not find out anything about it in 2009.

Marcus Barton said...

Not sure which run you are referring to, but there is a Uwharrie Rumble run that is part of this series. More info at

Anonymous said...

yarborg, fear not. I'm a complete trail novice and have run out there 2-3 times without getting lost. You can download and print a trail map at and they're pretty easy to follow. Plus, if you go on the weekends, there's usually enough people out there that you can ask them for help if you do get lost. Try the lake loop, which aside from a steep hill on a very wide trail at the beginning and end is pretty flat and easy. It's just a loop, so as long as you follow the trail you come back home. If you do that a couple times, you'll get a feel for it and get confidence to try some of the others.

I ran the shorty yesterday and had a great time. Theoden nailed the description.

LP said...

Those trails at the USNWC are pretty technical and very hilly, but they don't compare to Uwharrie. I've done Uwharrie before and will do it again this year (feb 6th). Uwharrie's hills are bigger and the terrain can be much more technical at times.

I thought last weekend's trail run was great. Those trails are technical enough make you pay attention to every step you take, but you can still maintain a good pace. It's a great break from all those miles on the road.


Anonymous said...


"How does this compare in difficulty to the Uwharrie Mountain run, anyone done both?"

The Uwharrie Mtn Run definately more challenging. For the 8 mile run elevation gain of about 1100 feet with about 375 feet gain within the first mile. Shouldnt be as muddy but its definately more rocky that at the WWC.