14 June 2014

26.2 Miles Through History...and 3 states!

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

Not sure who to attribute this quote to. After extensive research (i.e. I Googled it), I discovered it may be anything from a Buddhist proverb to a quote by Haruki Murakami in one of my favorite books, "What I talk about when I talk about Running." Regardless, it crossed my mind a few times this past weekend while I was 'running' marathon #27 - the inaugural Cumberland Gap Ridge Trail Marathon. 

I went back & forth about signing up for this race. I get a little nervous thinking about any first-time run after the challenges of my first 50 miler when the incompetent race director left us few participants out on the course without any aid. But the race was fairly close & the venue - Cumberland Gap National Historic Park - was a site I had not been to yet. Plus, based on the course description, how hard could it be?

Course Description 
This challenging first time event will start at the Civic Park in Ewing, VA with participants running up Ewing/White Rocks Trail to the Ridge gaining 1500ft of elevation in the first 3 miles. Runners then connect and continue on the entire Ridge Trail running the length of the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. While on the Ridge Trail runners will pass by Historic Hensley Settlement and have several spectacular views looking off the ridge. The trail along the ridge does have constant "rolling hills" with an overall elevation drop of 1100 Ft over the 16.5 mile length of the Ridge Trail. Once at the Pinnacle Parking lot runners will head down the trail losing 800 Ft in just 2 miles. Towards the bottom of these downhill miles runners will pass over the Historic Cumberland Gap and continue on off the Iron Furnace trail into the town of Cumberland Gap. Once in town runners will get a brief view of the finish line as they run to connect to the Lincoln Memorial University campus trails located on the edge of Cumberland Gap. This trail will have a steady 1 mile climb up to the main connection of trails behind LMU campus. Once on the main trail runners will have a nice descent coming off the trail and connecting to the final 2 miles of running to the finish along the Harrogate City Greenway back to the Town of Cumberland Gap.

Maybe my first warning this was going to be a tough day was when I was riding in the shuttle to the start. We all were watching the ridge to our north. Hmmm....that doesn't look very "rolling" to me! Maybe I should have studied that profile a little better? Nah! I am a runner! And I am a strong hiker! Little did I know how much that would come into play later in the day....

Here's how I broke the course up in my mind: First 3 miles - uphill all the way = high suck factor. Next 16.5 miles on the Ridge Trail - rolling hills = coast. Next 1 mile downhill - painful, but gravity is my friend! Last 6.5 miles - asphalt & a hill = moderate suck factor. My plan was to suck it up for the first 3 miles & then pretty much enjoy the rest of the run.

I quietly took my place at the back of the pack - it was rather funny as several of us were jockeying for the DFL position. Lots of nervous chatter & gossip. "I hiked this last week with my wife & she dropped from the race because there was no way she wanted to run 23 miles after this first 3." "I'm starting here in the back because no way am I gonna run any of this uphill because it's so steep."

Uh oh

Did I mention I did not really study the elevation profile?

The race directors did not exaggerate. The first 3 miles were tough! All of us back of the packers started out at a fast trot but after a couple of minutes we were all forced to stop as we funneled onto the trail. Not that I heard anyone complain! Now's when all my hikes chasing after Brian (I truly believe he has no idea how fast he hikes) really paid off. I wasn't pushing myself but I was passing people! Younger, skinnier, fitter looking people!

Hmmm....maybe this won't be that bad. I will say I was suprised at how many people were so negative about the hill. It was deceptive in that it did not look that steep but it was unrelenting. I trudged to the top in a blazing time of 50 minutes, but wasn't too worried as now my reward was the 16.5 miles of "rolling" hills.

And it was amazingly awesome! Long gentle downhill....not too rocky for a horse trail & nice views off the ridge. I can almost hear Chariots of Fire playing in the background as I float along....a cool breeze blowing through my hair..... Then....what's this? Another  #$%@! steep ass hill?!? As I begin my trudge up the hill I catch up with a runner who lives nearby & trains here. He cheerfully tells me he is taking it easy because there are alot more of these steep climbs before we hit the end.

Guess it's time to revise my definition of "rolling".

By the time I hit the 2nd aid station at mile 7.5 I am just a little under 2 hours. WTF? 4.5 miles in a hour?

Guess it's time to revise my goal of under 6 hours 
to "Hope I don't need the whole 8 hours."

There were other things I underestimated besides just the difficulty of the course. The bugs were awful! Not just gnats but giant mosquitoes that sounded like hummingbirds when they buzzed you! They did provide great motivation to keep moving. And the heat was a big factor, especially at the end. Despite this, I found I really enjoyed what the ridge trail threw at me. Just when I thought I could not stand another hill I would get a great half mile descent on pine needle surfaced paths. Or running the few rolling hills that did exist only to hit such a steep rocky plunge that you had to walk it or go careening off the ridge. It was never boring! 

Eventually I reached the last aid station on the Ridge Trail at Pinnacle parking area. Here I was finally able to get a good photo from the overlook:

Okay, now it's all downhill from here! And it was - steep downhill in full sun! Luckily it was not too far as my ankles were really feeling the rocks from the trail. And I felt like I really couldn't complain when the volunteers, including some local National Guard folks, were having to sit out in the sun all day just so we runners would know what way to go. Hit the bottom at just a little over 5 hours.Only 5 miles left.... I got this! Hmmm...maybe I can get close to 6 hours? Obviously the heat was making me delirious!

A little asphalt & then we dive into the woods on a nice little singletrack. Unfortunately the trail is so outsloped it is difficult to run on.And then I hit the last hill. Remember from the course description the gradual 1 mile climb? And did I say hill? NO, it was surely a mountain. And here's where my wheels fell off. There had been some severe storms the week before & numerous trees had fallen, many across the trail. Now, not only am I climbing uphill but I am also climbing over & around blowdowns. I also got to see my only snake on the trail. I was so tired I didn't even care!

Finally I "summitted" the "mountain" & started my slow descent back to town. Really couldn't complain too much. I caught up with a young guy from Blacksburg who was not having a good day. His friend had convinced him to do this run as his first marathon. Some friend, right?

I hit the last aid station & was so disappointed to hear I still had 2 miles to go. In full sun. On asphalt & concrete sidewalks. Woohoo.  There was one highlight along the way - along the greenway we went through a pretty cool tunnel. Literally a 60 degree tunnel! It was hard to leave but now I could see the light at the end of the tunnel:

Once out the tunnel it was a short uphill through town to the finish. I was so glad to see that banner! I think I even managed to still look like I was running? My finish time was a slow 6:35:57. Not my worst marathon but well slower than I anticipated. I was surprised to find I finished #54 out of 81 finishers (102 originally signed up). And I was really surprised to place 3rd in my age group! 

Overall I feel pretty good about the run - the course was extremely challenging but the race directors & volunteers did an outstanding job. From coordinating the shuttle to providing exceptional aid stations to cool North Face wicking shirts to the local handmade pottery awards, I can not praise this event enough.

So where do I sign up for next year?