The Uwharrie National Forest is located in the center of North Carolina, a somewhat odd location given the dominance of state and federal forests located in western North Carolina. Here is a quick interesting history - that part is not odd considering during the Great Depression much large land was aggregated by wide-scale abandonment/non payment of taxes. The history of the Duke Forest is very similar.
My history with the forest and the run go back to 2005. The race is always in early February and runs north to south. There are three length options; 8, 20, and 40 miles. For my first year I was torn as there was no moderate distance length, so I went with 20 miles. This was back when the Sharksbite Running Club was quite organized and large. We stayed in Asheboro the night before, ate a terrible restaurant, discovered Randolph County was dry, then sold the beer we bought elsewhere in the halls of the hotel. I was also forced to share a room with Brett, which did leave me permanently scarred.
I have been fortunate that in the four years every single Saturday has turned out almost always sunny and pleasant. Every single morning though that has meant the weather was COLD! I was extremely nervous about running the event, as I had never run more than 13.1 miles on pavement. Two weeks previous a group of us did come up to run the eight mile portion. The weather then was socked in and cold, drizzling just above freezing. During the practice run, I came out at the end (8 miles) with a time of 1:35:30. The beginning though was different as they routed everyone up the road a bit before swinging around a horribly eroded service road to the trail.
Mary, Genevieve, Will, and Scott at the start of the 20 Mile Race - 2005
Anelia, Erica, Audra, and Jody at the start of the 8 Mile Race - 2005
Wow, I look like I'm actually running! (2005)
Anelia, Erica, Audra, and Jody at the start of the 8 Mile Race - 2005
Wow, I look like I'm actually running! (2005)
While the records/splits I kept for the first 20 miler were scant, I do recall several other things - first that I ran with the tough-as-nails Genevieve Briere until the killer Mile 15-16 hill. From there she left me to place among the women. Then at that point my knees started to kill me. I came in at 4:00:36. I was forever tormented due to my zombie-like state following the race and I had to go to physical therapy for over three months.
When it came for registration for 2006 I choose 20 miles once again. Perhaps my favorite experience at Uwharrie was the practice run in 2006, once again two weeks before and just the eight mile portion. Running weather was about the same as the previous trial run, perhaps a few degrees warmer. We brought lots of dogs! Lat brought his dog Dakota (this is before Lat was banned by his family from running with the dog), Ben and Monica brought Otto, Marie brought Tanner ("The Hound" - Winston's mortal running enemy, according to Chris), and of course I brought Winston. Other humans participating were Keith, Brett, and Chris. Since I wasn't in the front pack, Winston ran off with the front-runners but it made me so happy for him to have an experience like that! I clocked in at 1:26:42
I did switch to the 8 mile race. This was before they clamped down on people like me. The previous fall after running the NYC marathon I wanted to do another marathon at Kiawah but instead could only finish the half (it was still a PR that continues to stand) and with much knee pain. Instead of lodging the night before, I drove up the morning of the race with Bevin. It was odd to start the run an hour later, and to change the strategy to give it my all for just eight miles. I can't remember if something was hurting but I came in at 1:27:21. Hmm. At least the scenery was nice on the return to the minivan.
This made me eager to return to the 20 mile and break four hours. In 2007 there was no practice run. Race day conditions were super cold to start, I was one of few people who started in shorts and a simple shortsleeve shirt. One of the keys to my success that day was hanging with Bruce until Mile 13. I knew things were going well when I passed through at Mile 8 with a time of 1:26. From there I struggled along on my own but came through 3:48:14! I placed 48th out of 115 for males and 54th out of 149 overall finishers.
That May I was able to come out and run the 8 mile portion. My parents were in town and they went into the Asheboro Zoo while I attended a meeting for work. Afterwards they dropped me off and drove to the finish. The conditions were 68 degrees and nice - perhaps the most bizarre aspect was the "leaf-on" time of year that made the whole experience different. Truly running alone was also strange. No matter - it was my best 8 Mile performance ever, clocking in at 1:25:07.
There was no doubt I would be back for 20 in 2008. The race had become so popular that all three distances sold out in a matter of days. Back in 2004 when registering for the 20 mile I sent in my check at the end of December. There was definitely serious angst building up to 2008, as at the Kiawah Half Marathon I bashed my right knee early on and ran 11+ miles in utter pain. I essentially did not run for a full month and even during January took it easy. We did schedule a practice run, but it was canceled in anticipating of of a bad snowstorm, which turned out to be non-existent.
As we all watched the Asheboro weather report (Ophir, NC has yet to get the billing it deserves) all indications were that it was going to be another sunny day, perhaps warmer than previous years. The real potential trouble were the rains that covered the Piedmont on Friday. The truth was we needed it badly, so no matter. Like previous years, we drove up the morning of the race. The adventure started at 5:01AM for (I never set my alarm clock at a "round" time) me. I was out of the house with a bowl of oatmeal and bagels bound for Eastover. At Keith's house (which was impossible to find in the dark) Julie joined us and left her car there. As we headed north towards Harrisburg a most startling revelation was uncovered - Julie had never eaten oatmeal!! For Keith and myself, avid backpackers, this was a little hard to take. But it was important to focus on the race and not let this piece of news distract us. At Harrisburg we picked up Bruce then hurtled northeast on Highway 49. Bruce brought a Tom-Tom with him that suggested the "quickest" route, although I knew from experience not to take any of these gravel road entrapments that littered the area. As we headed south on 109 the sun began to rise providing some stunning scenery. The temperature was in the mid-20s as we arrived around 7:25.
New for this year was a central parking area off the road. However, after picking up our packets we were able to park on the side closer like previous years. While we were prepping several people we knew came by. My co-worker Rich approached with the news he was actually going in full throttle for the full 20 miles instead of stopping at eight miles. Then my wonderful friend from Duke, Michele, approached with her lab Lucy. Michele is a "co-worker" of mine, working for the neighboring land trust that since 2007 has been a beneficiary of this event - yet another reason to support it in full. Fellow Madison Park resident and outstanding triathlete Melinda swung by, along with our running colleague Stan.
I hope to convey to you why I love this race so much. It starts with registration, specifically the warm campfire and the consistently AWESOME shirt. Of course, we wait until the last second at the fire before stripping down.
We then hand the bags that will be at the finish line. This wasn't absolutely necessary with our wonderful crew support this year, but we did it anyway.
Stan, Scott, Keith, and Bruce after strippng - it is COLD!
It seemed like the wait was longer than usual. You will have obviously noticed at this point I was the only one in the crowd wearing a singlet with my shorts. I naturally had my gloves, but this was a calculated risk knowing I generally prefer to run with as few clothes as possible. Just looking at someone like Melinda decked with gear makes me uncomfortable.
At the start of the race everyone runs up the paved road about 300-400 feet to a service road. Unless you are at the front, you essentially are stopped to a walking pace. As Keith likes to say in PG-13 terms, it's a "goat farm." You are able to kick it up on the first "flat," but then generally have to walk through the especially rocky parts of the Dark Mountain ascent. Unless you are racing to win, it is a generally held strategy never to run up Dark Mountain and waste your energy. For me, as it was just as true this year, the race really begins on that ridge as I started to establish my kick. For me my strategy is a winning one, within 20 minutes I was no longer cold. The gloves come off another fifteen minutes later. From the descent the running was good to the "2 mile" access road. I found myself tiring more than usual. Thankfully though the right knee is a non-issue, although at the beginning I felt a little irritation in my left ankle, even though I had yet to really twist anything.
The first indication of relative performance is at the 5 mile aid station. Last year I came in at 0:48, this year a minute later for a 10.0 minute mile pace. My main worry, besides feeling tired, was that I did not attach myself to Bruce - he was to be seen. After descending to the campground the footbridge across is as icy as ever, so that was a no-brainer to walk. And this being my seventh time, after the creek crossing at Mile 7 I knew better than to go to the right. I helped to guide the guy in orange who kept asking me if I was from Canada. The finish before Mile 8 is a tough slide-slope. I came across Mile 8 1:29:30, ironically enough my exact average for my six previous attempts. I don't know this because I add and divide in my head while racing, I know it because I calculated it beforehand.
This is of course about three miles off my pace from the previous year. I stopped to talk with Julie, inquire about Bruce (she hadn't seen him, later I learned he had already gone), and hand off my gloves. I remember telling her to expect me at 4:15, quite a pessimistic estimation but I wasn't feeling too high about myself. I am starting to really worry about my general energy level. But I press on. As I plod along I do start to feel better. Around Mile 9-10 I know from our experience last year to once again hang a hard left and not cross a medium-sized creek. Despite this a few hundred feet later I do make a momentary wrong turn, costing only about 15 seconds. From there the run up the creek feels fine. I come in at the Mile 11 aid station at 2:04:07, over six minutes slower than last year. I was very happy to see Julie there to cheer me on!! I also have begun to notice fellow Charlotte runner/Ironman Ilan is constantly coming in just as I am ready to leave.
I was not looking forward to two hills I consider tough before the Mile 14 aid station. Despite my slowdown, I was very surprised to encounter Sean Andrish before the station. I don't know him personally, but last year he crushed the 40 mile competition and I vividly recall seeing him after Mile 14. He looked good. This started the (eventual) wave of 40 mile runners (who started an hour earlier at 7AM) coming back. With regards to the female competition, I could tell in the field (and results confirmed) the competition was not as strong. Another ingredient that makes this such a fun race is exchanging words of encouragement with these runners. The process technically started earlier as I did pass a handful of the slowest 40 mile walkers still heading south. At Mile 14 I clock in at 2:45:07, approximately nine minutes slower than 2007. My pace is now a 11:48 minute mile. I stopped there for about two minutes, beginning to wonder if the fully-carbonated Coke they are serving was going to be my downfall, as I am used to the flat Coke (which as Cheryl Osborn says, is like "rocket fuel"). While contemplating how fried I am, another 40-miler goes by.
Upon leaving, I was most excited to see my friend Chris Cummins walking up towards the aid station. This is good news - he doesn't look half as wasted as the faces I will start to see, and considering Andrish's decimation of the field last year Cummins is amazingly close. I certainly am not trying to downplay his abilities, but he had yet at that point actually run 40 miles. But back to me! I know the monster mountain awaits, but my running is relatively strong as I pick my way through the flats. I have no energy to run up the thing, but come on, neither did I the previous two times. Right near the apex I take my last of three gels. I definitely feel great about summiting the raw climb. Along the ridge I spot a Boy Scout troop, I think just about every weekend I've run here there is at least one group - it is an excellent place to bring them.
I seem to recall being asked if I am able to take in the scenery while I run. While Uwharrie has many beautiful spots and views, it's tough sometimes because you really need to focus on foot placement, the terrain is exceptionally rocky and the frozen/wet leaves, along with frigid stream crossings, really force you concentrate. It's not always like that though, I do see many things that most people don't consider, mostly because I am a forester and I can easily tell stand histories, clearcut practices, tree species, understory indications of site productivity, etc. And if you think I write too much, just be thankful I don't go off with my thoughts about the US government being in the tree growing business, especially when you consider the implicit interest rate assumed under the legislated (MUSYA 1960) Maximum Sustained Yield. As as someone who currently works in the field a fair amount, it can detract from the "newness" of being outside, although I did notice some nice dwarf heartleaf.
As I descend I continue to feel another surge. I later pass Tim Long, the second person I know running the 40-miler. I was a little surprised at his position, but I heard he came back strong to finish at 6:40. You only need read his race report to understand how much it means to 40 milers to get encouragement. Perhaps my ultimate downfall during this race was failing to anticipate the nasty slide-slope before the Mile 17 aid station. This part destroyed me. I began to feel like I was drunk, wandering aimlessly but somehow forward. I was downright delirious. The strangest part was that I had yet to fall. Early on I was poked in the head by a branch I did not see, but otherwise was unscathed, especially with ankle twists. I could think of nothing else but surviving to Mile 17. I came in at 3:29:30, over nine minutes slower than last year. While not privy to the numbers at the time (I can hardly add 2 + 2 when I run, especially when I was fried beyond comparison), this meant I had not really loss much time.
The climb out of Mile 17 was particularly brutal, but I knew there were some great stretches to bring back some time on the last 3 miles. Oh yeah, and the prospect of finishing and stopping this madness was also nice. Shortly after leaving I encountered the third and final person I knew doing 40 miles, Steve Watkins. He seemed to be in a good mood. Like Chris he had also never run the distance, so I obviously did not know what to expect. Except that I did get that surge in me for the good running sections. I was lucid enough to realize with my Mile 17 split breaking four hours was probably not going to happen. Unfortunately right before the end there was the uphill that got me. Then I realized I at least had a shot to not "go over" 4 hours, and sure enough I surged in at 4:00:46, a mere ten seconds slower than my 2005 attempt. How weird is that? That is an even 12:00 minute mile pace.
It certainly was great to hear lots of general people cheering for me, along with Michele who was timing (I swear, I didn't buy her off beforehand), Julie, and my running comrades. How great it was to finish, mostly to rid myself of the right knee angst! It wasn't long before I learned the stupendous news that Lat had won the 20 mile race outright, and that Keith was close behind in second. Stan was grumbling a little bit about his time but otherwise happy like myself to be done. Ilan came in about fifteen minutes later. By the time I came back, which was less than thirty minutes later, I was perhaps most excited to see Rich finish with a great time that he was extremely happy about.
I would rate the trail conditions the best ever, despite the rain on Friday. The second half of the course had its usual muddy points and the creeks were obviously lower than usual. I had next to no blood on my legs, which were hardly dirty and my Asics Evolutions were not caked in dirt, though hardly clean.
Oh yes, I must not forget to mention another part of Uwharrie I love, the great finishing items. While if you run the 8 Mile race you get a clay medal, finishers of the 20 get a great piece of pottery, a nice cup. Those that place or run the 40 miles get an amazing plate. For those that don't understand the significance of this, this area of central North Carolina (especially Seagrove) is quite famous for its pottery.
I think there was an important life lesson for me, and has become especially true looking at the amount of effort I really put into training and what I get out. If may quote Martin Luther King, Jr. or perhaps most recently Rage Against The Machine
"How long, not long because what you reap is what you sow"
Races like these really "wake me up" to this reality. Sure there will always be people who are naturally talented, win the lottery, or accidentally get hit by a bus, but for the bulk of us hard work will in the long run equal great results. While I don't really believe in luck, I understand Thomas Jefferson completely when he said:
"I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it."
Here is my proof. In 2005, the three months before Uwharrie I ran 140 miles and ran a 4:00. In 2007 I made a more concerted effort, logging in 238 miles and finishing at 3:48. And this year, I put in 175 miles and finished at 4:00.
Keith, Bruce, and myself were also extremely fortunate to have Julie as our wonderfully talented Support Crew. Although I felt much better than after the 2005 race, I was really in no condition to drive. She picked up the slack for us tired guys as we sojourned back to Charlotte and our hot showers. This saved us the shuttle ride back to the cars, which historically has been my least favorite part of the Uwharrie Race. And of course, she provided the photographs for this year.
That night we had a great celebration in Charlotte at the Maggiano's in South Park! I might have normally made a mistake in sitting next to the hungriest Chris Cummins I have ever seen, but there was plenty of great food and lots of other Charlotte running friends to hear the stories.
**2005 Photos courtesy of Staci Tooke, with the exception of the professional shot
Final result - 4:00:46 (12:00 minute mile pace)
Average 20 Mile Time after 3 completions- 3:56:32
Walmart Associates Running Uwharrie
Chris Cummins - 6:30:15 - 3rd overall
Tim Long -- 6:40:37
Steve Watkins - 8:30:57
Lat Purser - 2:48:13 - 1ST OVERALL!
Keith Mrochek - 2:50:36 - 2nd overall
Stan Austin - 3:26:18
Bruce Wagoner - 3:43:43
Melinda Yelton - 3:53:17
Ilan Paltrow - 4:13:43
Rich Holmes - 4:25:09
Mary Franceschi - 4:41:29
Marie Winget - 1:17:55
Sharon Wilson - 1:56:41
Julie Gayheart - 2:11:02