Update: Click here for the 2007 race results of both the 50k and the 23k.
The Pisgah 50k Mountain Trail Race was this past Sunday, September 9, 2007. I really enjoyed the experience and will provide a few details about the race now that I’ve had a few days to think about the whole thing. The other day, I talked about what led up to the race and covered what happened before the gun went off. Today I’d like to talk about the race itself.
The Starting Line at Pisgah
The start of the race was scheduled for 8:45 a.m. At 8:43 a.m. it began to rain again. The race was pretty low tech, so the start consisted of a couple of stopwatches and some voice commands. As much as I love the Maine Track Club’s cannon, it was nice to not be deafened at the start of the race.
A bunch of 23k runners were clustered at the front of the starting line. The crowd of them took off with the “gun” (also known as somebody yelling “Go!”) and hurried to the front of the pack. I hung back a little since this was a new experience for me from both a trail racing perspective and a distance perspective.
The Start at Pisgah
The first mile or so was along paved roads which rolled steadily up towards some carriage roads. Once you got onto the carriage roads, there was a steep descent to get onto the trail itself. The drop was probably about 400 feet over the span of a third of a mile or so.
The rain was very heavy and continued for about 30 minutes into the race. Heavy tree cover, constant cloud cover, and heavy rain led to a pretty dark course early on which almost made me wish that I had a head lamp. It drizzled off and on for the next four hours after the rain abated, but mostly the skies stuck to just cloud cover after that and it was not as dark. It did start to rain again about 15 or 20 minutes after I finished, though.
The trail narrowed a bit once past the gates, but you could still run next to somebody if you wanted. About 11 or 12 minutes into the race, the 50k crowd peeled off to the left onto the South Woods Trail. The South Woods Trail was single track, but it was pretty easy going with only a few roots and rocks in the way.
The Trail at Pisgah
The trail was really well marked with pink ribbons for the entire course. Any time that you were curious about which way to go, a quick glance up would more than likely reveal a ribbon somewhere ahead. There were maybe 4 or 5 times throughout the entire race that I looked up and did not see one within a few steps, and those were never more than 20 or 30 seconds ahead.
The bridges were horrible, though. I have had an easier time running on ice than I did on the wooden bridges. The bridges were covered with a thin film of moss, which when combined with rain made for such a slick surface that it was easy to slide from one side of the bridge to the next. Thankfully, I did not slide onto my face or back at all, or slide right off of the bridge. I came close, but I managed to stay upright.
Most of the bridges were either visible from quite a distance down the trail, or were marked by “Bridge Ahead” signs when they fell at the bottom of a hill or around a turn. I took those “Bridge Ahead” signs to mean “Slow the Hell Down!” Of course, not every bridge was soaked and slippery, just 95% of them. Slowing down, stepping carefully, and hoping that you don’t bounce off when there was more than one person on the early bridges got you safely to the other side.
Running with the Leaders at Pisgah
I never ran with anybody once I passed the halfway point in the race. At the very beginning, there was a pretty good crowd that thinned out well before the trail got narrow. Once on the trail, I ran for 3 or 4 miles with Jack and Dave, who eventually got 3rd and 1st, respectively. They offered some good advice on carrying water during these long races.
I took my first gel packet around 30 minutes into the race. I discovered that trying to get a gel packet out of a pocket, see where you are going on a technical trail in the dark, hold onto the packet with wet hands in heavy rain, and then stuff the empty packet back into a pocket can be quite difficult. Especially when you want to stay upright. I managed it well enough, but 3 or 4 minutes later the rain let up and we came onto a service road with good footing and no trees directly over head.
Both of my companions managed to pull away from me around the 40 minute mark, which was right around the time that I started to meet my first steep climbs on the trail itself. I certainly do not have the skills to run the technical trails that climb or descend quickly and will need to work on that before the next race. Jack suggested that I have patience, which was pretty good advice.
Running with Others at Pisgah
After running by myself for about 20 minutes or so, Paul Young caught up to me shortly before a steep decline along the trail. Once the trail began to drop, he really took off and I did my best to keep up with him. We were running at top speed down a hill that dropped over 500 feet from summit to bottom, and I was scare out of my mind. I believe that I even said something to that effect to Paul as I tried to keep up.
“Walk the uphills, especially early on. There’s no sense beating yourself up before you need to,” Paul Young told me.
Thankfully, there was no bridge down at the bottom. There was a sharp turn and we were off of the trail on a carriage road coming up to an aid station. Before we returned to the trails, the road took a steep climb and brought us back up about 400 feet, which we walked. Paul suggested walking all of the steep climbs to save energy, especially when you weren’t going to be going much faster if you ran anyway. Paul pulled away from me shortly after that without much difficulty, as he was much more fearless on the descents than I could bring myself to after that first time.
Again, I ran by myself for about 20 minutes or so. I stopped for a minute or so at the aid station at the 12 mile mark to refill my water bottle and chat with the aid workers. It was around this time that Mike the Self-Sponsored Lawyer ran by. The aid station is at the bottom of a hill in a small parking area. The workers warned me that if I stood around much longer that I was going to get past, which I did, but I wasn’t worried. I chased Mike down on the hill that greeted us as we got back on the trail, and I ran with him for the next few miles.
There is a very sharp hairpin turn just past the half-marathon point, which was where my wife was waiting to cheer me on. Thankfully, she turned us around since both Mike and I tried to go straight there which would have brought us back to the starting line. She could hear us coming up the trail as we chatted. Shortly after we passed her, though, I walked up a hill while Mike continued running. It was an even shorter time later that I flew by Mike on a down hill and he never caught back up.
About two hours had passed, and I was halfway through the race. That was the last time that I had anybody to run with.
Running Alone at Pisgah
During the thunderstorm the night before the race, the friend that I was staying with was joking about how the trail was going to be blocked. Having run a few trails before, I did not really have any doubts about that but doubted that this particular storm was going to have much to do with it. The park is somewhere around 13,500 acres of forest, I read somewhere.
Deciding how to count fallen trees was an amusement for myself during the race. For the most part, any tree that blocked the trail I counted as a fallen tree. If I could run over the tree with breaking stride, though, I wouldn’t count it. If I could run under it without having to do anything other than duck my head, then I did not count that either. In one case, the tree completely blocked the trail, but a new trail had been made to go around it so I did not count that one either. Nor did I count any trees that had been cut to allow you to get around them.
All in all, there were 15 trees blocking the trail that I had to climb over or around or crawl under. I passed 9 or 10 of them in the first hour or so of the race.
The trails that made up the race course went near the edges of the park quite a few times, which made it easy for my wife to get from one point to another to see me. She could hear me coming every time, as I was always talking or singing. This proved to be a little confusing for her, though, since other than that first time I was always alone when I went by her. She kept waiting for somebody else to come up the trail behind me that I might have been talking to, but there was nobody there. I find it amusing that I can not shut up even when I am by myself.
Aerobically, I did not have any trouble during the race other than on the steepest climbs. I just was not working that hard. My climbing and descent skills were seriously lacking, though, and I did not really have the training behind me that would have given me the strength to challenge for the race title.
The Kilburn Loop at Pisgah
Around mile 20, I was in fifth place and had been running for about 2 hours and 48 minutes. At this point there is an aid station that you pass twice, turning left onto the Kilburn Loop the first time.
This loop was really tough. I went into it feeling pretty good and not having any troubles at all. Very quickly after turning onto the trail, you can see Kilburn Pond through the trees to your left. It looked like a good spot to fish, but I did not investigate too closely. The first couple of miles involve about 600 feet of descent with a small climb, and the trail is pretty easy through here. For some reason, though, running down these hills took a lot out of me.
Once I started reaching the serious climbing part of this loop, I was getting pretty tired. The next three miles I was out of breath frequently and I walked for 20 to 30 seconds at a time any time that the trail got fairly steep. This 5 mile loop took me about 50 minutes to complete.
Right around the time that I began wondering how bad I was going to get if I still had more than 10 kilometers to go, though, I emerged onto a trail that I had run before. You run for about 3/4 of a mile on the same trail you already did to get back to the aid station which is now at the 25.4 mile mark.
The easier down hill descent, knowing that a blocked trail at the bottom of one hill meant a sharp left turn, and knowing that I’d be passing my wife within 5 or 6 minutes gave me a good lift. I never really hit the wall on the Kilburn loop, but I came pretty close. I still got that nice lift once you’ve broken through the wall, though and I am certain that I startled at least a few people with my random songs about the last 10k.
The Last Trails at Pisgah
I refilled my water bottle at the aid station, and grabbed a last gel packet from my wife. Unfortunately, I got the gel all over my hand and leg when I tried to stuff it into my pocket. I thought that I had somehow tore off the tab, but apparently my wife just thought I meant to suck it down when I got to the aid station. I had to double back from up the trail so that I could get another one and clean off my hand.
This gave new life to another runner, who had technically caught and passed me during this fiasco but thought that maybe I was on my first loop and going the wrong way. I quickly disabused him of that notion, though, by passing him going up the hill away from the aid station and leaving him behind.
Somewhere in this area was where I passed the marathon point, which was somewhere in the vicinity of 3 hours and 40 minutes. I don’t know where any of the mile markers were on the course, though, other than some of the specific aid stations.
Coming up to route 63, I passed a man with a baby stroller as we went around a large puddle. The course takes you across a parking lot and out to the road, where you turn back onto the trail at the last second before you actually get onto route 63. I was a little confused by this and was not really expecting the Davis Hill trailhead to be so close to the road, so I had to double back and look up a few other trails to make sure that there were no pink ribbons. The course was well marked, but I wasted time anyway.
At this point in the race, I was ready to stop running. Around the 27 to 28 mile mark, the wet shoes got the better of me and I finally developed a blister on my left foot. Oh well. I also got a rock caught in the heel of my right foot, but I asked it to come out on its own since I didn’t want to stop and it kind of hurt. It was a nice rock and it listened to me and fell out of the shoe on its own.
Finishing at Pisgah
I was very excited to get off of the trails and onto the carriage roads, except that the carriage roads were pretty steep and you had to run down them. By choice, I generally prefer running uphill to running downhill, especially at the ends of long runs. Between the carriage roads and the paved roads to the finish, the last couple of miles drop you about 600 feet or so.
I managed to bring Paul Young into my line of sight here at the end of the race. I was singing pretty loudly about how unhappy I was to have no idea how far it was to the finish line and having to run downhill on the roads, though, and he probably thought that I was yelling to him or something. He kept looking over his shoulder at me and maintained his 15 second lead on me.
The pavement was especially painful at the end of the race. If you ever run, and you see the stop sign at the end of the road where you turn right onto route 63, you are almost done. You go up a very short climb, turn right, and within a few hundred yards you get to turn off of the road and run into the finishing chute on the grass in front of the fire station. So whatever you have left, you can start spending it a little earlier than I did.
I had a strong finish. I was probably moving around 6:30 or 7:00 minute pace over the last quarter to half of a mile. Once through the chute, they grabbed the stub off of my number, wrote my time down, and pinned it to the board. I had maintained my position in 5th place.
My watch told me that I ran 4:22:28, but I had stopped it for the 5 minutes or so I spent chatting with aid station volunteers while I refilled my water bottle throughout the course. My official time was 4:27 and change, but I am still waiting on seeing the official results since I did not think to remember how many seconds that it took me.
If you’d like to know more about the Pisgah 50k Trail Race, then come back tomorrow when I continue my story with the post-race amenities and the aftermath of the race. If you haven’t already, you can read what led up to the race or my initial impressions the evening of the race.