Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Thanksgiving Journey to the Archaic Hills of Uwharrie

For the past few years, I've made it a tradition to head out to the Birkhead Mountain Wilderness Area in the Uwharrie National Forest for a Thanksgiving morning run on one of the more challenging 7 mile trail routes that the Piedmont has to offer. Today would be no different, even though it is the middle of hunting season and the Uwharrie's are the Mecca of deer hunting in North Carolina.

The Uwharrie's are a string of ancient and most definitely dormant volcanoes that stretch through most of Montgomery and Randolph counties. They are believed to be the oldest mountain range in North America and it shows, since they have been whittled down over millions of years to mere 700 - 1000' stumps. These "mountains" are still pretty darn steep and offer some climbs of 500' or more, so it is the closest thing to actual mountain running you are going to get in the Piedmont. Actually, there is an annual 40-mile ultra held in these "mountains" that boasts a good 7,000 ft of vertical gain! That is pretty impressive.

Well, lets get on to the run. I arrived at the Robins Branch Trailhead and there were already 5 cars and trucks there. Along with one of the trucks, was a freshly cleaned deer hanging on a tree! I had thought while driving out there, "there are probably going to be some hunters," but I would have never imagined this greeting. Undeterred by the sight that laid before me, I laced up my MT 101's and took of down Hannah's Creek Trail. Not even a minute into the run I heard two gun shots of in the distance. Thoughts went racing through my head; "Am I the one being hunted", "Should I run faster", "I'm wearing orange, that should keep me safe right?" Not but a few minutes after the gun shots, I saw some bright pink ribbon tied to a branch and immediately thought, "That must be the ribbon that the hunter is using to help him find his way back to the trail." I was right, because as soon as that thought left my head, I saw the camoed, orange caped hunter stepping out of the woods. I said a quick "How ya doin'", with a cold non-response from the hunter, and headed on my way. Maybe I shouldn't have said anything, because that might have "scarred away" the deer?

Anyway, after the early barrage of all things hunting, things settled down and I felt that I was deep enough in the woods that no hunter would be out this far. My logic being that it must be pretty difficult to drag a deer 3 miles out of the woods. With this sudden feeling of safety, came the hills. On all of my previous runs on this loop, I had to walk up the two big climbs of about 300 ft each. This time that would not be the case, I mean I've been running up actual mountains this fall! These big hills are dwarfs in comparison. It paid off in my time as well. I had never ran this loop in under 1:05 before, but today I ran it in 56:36. I can definitely tell that my training is paying off. I'm becoming a much stronger runner. Not necessarily faster, but definitely stronger. Well, after passing by camp sites, old homesteads, and many minor creek crossings, I was finished. Here is the Garmin data: Birkhead Moutain Loop

I really cherish this loop, because it was the first serious hike that I ever went on and it paved the way to me doing what I do now. I'm glad that when I do return back to my hometown, that I have this rugged slice of North Carolina to keep me honest in my running. I really miss the mountains though, and I'm looking forward to frolicking around in the Bent Creek area this Saturday with the good people from WNC Trailrunner! Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and lets remember to be thankful for places like Uwharrie and other nature playgrounds that we get to enjoy. Gobble, Gobble!!!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Roan Highlands Run to Big Yellow

After I finished my race last weekend, I was immediately thinking about this run and how I couldn't wait for this weekend to come. I have such a deep love for the highlands of Roan and have day hiked and backpacked there many times, but I had never attempted a run there. Also, after my last trip to the beautiful balds, I found out that I had missed one of them that was off the beaten path of the AT called Big Yellow Mtn. So after many hours of researching how to get out there, this weekend I was going for it! Huge pay off by doing so, but I'll get to that later.

The original plan this morning was to get up around 7:30 and then leave at 8:00 to make the hour long drive to Carver's Gap and arrive at the trailhead by 9:00. Well, getting home around 1:00 am and then having insomnia, which kept me up another 2 hours, pretty much put that scheduled wake up time on the back burners. So, eventually I arose from bed at 9:30, ate a couple bowls of cereal and headed of towards Carver's Gap at 10:10. I would be arriving at the trailhead a good 2 hours behind schedule, but at least a got some sleep.

As soon as I arrived, I shed my fleece, strapped on my water bottle, and pushed myself up through the majestic fir forest to Round Bald. It was a very easy climb and then the trail quickly descended down to Engine Gap and back up the shorter but steeper climb to Jane's Bald. Then came the long descent down the muddy switchbacks on the backside of Grassy Ridge to Yellow Mountain Gap. When I got there, I took a quick breather, a sip of water, and downed a couple of Clif Blocks. I knew that the climb going up to Little Hump was going to be quite strenuous at the beginning, so the quick rest was welcomed.

I tried to maintain a jog from Yellow Mtn Gap to Little Hump Mtn, but the grade at one point was so steep I could walk up it faster, so that is what I did for about a tenth of a mile and as soon as the grade settled back into a more tolerable 10%, I continued jogging to the intersection of the side trail that would lead me to Big Yellow. Trouble was, I couldn't find the trail once it entered back into the woods so I had to bushwhack my way for half a mile until I finally spotted the trail again. Let's just say that bushwhacking is something I would rather not do without a map. The trail was nice and it was a gentle climb to the wide expanse of grassy goodness that laid before me. This picture does not do it justice, but at least you can get a feel for what I was seeing. This was without a doubt the most beautiful bald in all of the Roan Highlands. Upon reaching the summit of Big Yellow, I let out a primal howl of pure astonishment! The views from the mountain were amazing! I could practically look down into Linville Gorge and see Grandfather Mtn and Grassy Ridge towering to the East and West of me. I stopped at a rocky area and started to assemble a rock statue at that location all while the wind was whipping through my sweat drenched cloths. Obviously, I started to get a little chilly and I figured that it was time to stop playing and get back to summit Little Hump before I turned back for the day.

It was easy going back down the side trail to meet back up with the AT. The side trail starts basically right below the summit of Little Hump, so as soon as I got back on the AT, I took a quick right to grab one more peak before I turned around. Upon reaching the summit, there is a fantastic view of Hump Mtn to the East, which is another one of my favorite mountains. If the training plan would have called for an extra 4 miles, I would have climbed to its peak as well. But, it was time to turn around and I was almost out of water.

I began to race back down the AT towards Yellow Mtn Gap to fill up my bottle and was welcomed with a pleasant view of the Overmountain Victory Shelter below me. This barn/shelter is about 200 yards from where I refilled my bottle with some cold mountain spring water and downed the remaining of my Clif Blocks; Needed energy for the 1200' climb back up to the flanks of Grassy Ridge. I was beginning to feel the fatigue in my legs from the weeks running at about this time and decided to employ a strategy of alternating walking and running on each switchback. It worked out pretty well and was greatly appreciated by my aching hip flexors. As soon as I reached Jane's Bald, I decided to take one more good look at the beautiful mountains and valleys that laid before me. I've often stopped at this spot and just soaked in what was around me for extended periods of time. This section of the AT is without a doubt the highlight of the whole trail. Well, after a couple of minutes, I raced back down to Carver's Gap to finish the day, pushing my fatigued legs as hard as they could go for the last 1.5 miles of crushed gravel trail that laid before me.

Today was such a great run in both beauty and my personal performance. Minus the time playing around on Big Yellow and the soaking in of my surroundings at the peaks, I ran 17.4 miles in 2:56:33. Pretty good considering that there was close to 3900 ft of gain throughout the run. If I can average a 10:07 mile on this run, I know I can at Uwharrie and achieve my goal of running that race under 7 hours. Here is the garmin data from the run: Carvers Gap to Big Yellow/Little Hump

Next week, the Bent Creek Gobbler!!!!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Overmountain Victory Trail Race Report

The morning started off way to early with me having to get up at 6 am (which is early for me, haha) to get ready to drive 40 minutes down the road to the beautiful rolling trails of the Overmountain Victory Trail along the banks of the Kerr Scott Reservoir in Wilkesboro, NC. This was the inaugural running of this race and it looked to be a great one! After reading the weather forecast for this morning, the temps looked like they would be perfect for shorts and a t-shirt. But once I got to the packet pick up at 7:20, it was still 32 degrees and I was freezing, just waiting to start the race and get my body warmed up.

After listening to the pre-race talk, informing us that the race would actually be 17.25 miles, not the 25K (15.53 m) advertised I couldn't wait to go. This didn't bother me, since I knew going into the run that this would be the correct distance. So, right before the start, I shed my fleece and toed the line ready to get going.

I probably took off a little to fast as I discovered that I was in first place after the first 3 miles, but I felt pretty comfortable and stayed in a comfortable, but still hard pace to the turn around in 2:06. I had one guy on my heels the whole way to the turn around which helped me give myself that push that I needed. We stayed close behind the lead group by about 30 seconds until the turnaround but I soon lost sight of them and the guy (Jose) following close by fell back and I was alone for the last 7 miles of the race. I asked him what happened after the race and he said his knees started to give out on him. He still ran a great race for him being a road runner at heart. So, I was in third place with no one around me and decided to run smart from there until the 2 miles left aid station to kick it in to high gear and try and catch the lead group. But, my legs just couldn't muster up the steam on what is probably the toughest part of the course. Oh well, I new I had 3rd place in the bag and was completely satisfied with my run in 2:16:47!

After the race I hung out and met some pretty cool people while waiting for the awards ceremony. This race was great, and I would definitely recommend it to anybody looking for a fast trail race or a beginner trail race. The course only had about 1,700 ft of gain over 17.25 miles, so not to hard. Just a lot of rolling hills! Check out the garmin report here: