Sunday, April 27, 2014

Spring Break 2014!

Well, this year's Spring Break from work at school was most excellent!  I felt that I really capitalized on the time afforded to us to wind down from a hard 2nd semester of teaching.  I won't really go into much detail about each of my adventures, but will let pictures give you a glimpse of what I got into.

I started off with an phenomenal retreat to the Black Mountains to hang in a cabin with a great friend and my new brothers, then leave the comfy confines of the rustic cabin to run up to the crest of the highest mountain range east of the Mississippi and traverse it all the way to Mt. Mitchell and back down.  A few other looney WNC Trail Runners joined us on what I dubbed the Green Woody Crest Traverse, although no one took up the option to climb up to Green Knob at the end of the run.  Let's just say the weather didn't really cooperate, but we still had a great time!

After returning home to visit the families over Easter, Hannah and I headed out for some camping on Table Rock in the Linville Gorge on Monday and Tuesday.  We set up on the summit of Little Tablerock and enjoyed the sunset and sunrise from it's bigger brother.  Jody met up with us Tuesday morning for some trail running out over the Chimneys and to Shortoff and back.  It was just another majestic trip to the gorge!

And a little time lapse footage recorded from Table Rock during sunset and sunrise for your viewing pleasure.

Table Rock Time Lapse Spring 2014 from Brandon Thrower on Vimeo.

Wednesday featured a good run out at Hickory City Park with the Catawba Valley Trail Runner crew and then I formed a plan for a nice loop out on Grandfather Mountain for Thursday.  I woke up early Thursday and drove up to Blowing Rock for the lone adventure.  Spring wildflowers were popping up all over the Tanawha Trail, I was mightily humbled by the difficulty and lunacy of one of the most amazing and scenic trails in east (Grandfather Trail), and even bumped into some Gorge Rats while bounding down the Daniel Boone and Cragway Trails.  It was a glorious outing on a perfect day on Grandfather!

Next up for Hannah and I was a two day trip out to Merlefest!  The lineup this year was outstanding and we witnessed some great musical moments during our attendance.  Some outstanding acts that we saw this year included: Scythian, Red June, The Duhks, Mandolin Orange, Steep Canyon Rangers, Tim O'brian and Derryll Scott, The Waybacks, Todd Snider, Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Sam Bush, and Old Crow Medicine Show!  We returned to the site of my previous 50 miler, Leatherwood Mountains Resort, which my legs are still feeling by the way, and camped out beside Elk Creek between the two days we were there.  Great place, even if you aren't running.

To cap off our Spring Break, Hannah and I took a little trip back up to the Linville Gorge, except this time just for a nice run along Jonas Ridge to Hawksbill and back.  Both of these were trails and summits Hannah had yet to be on, so it was nice to take her out to these iconic peaks in the Gorge.  It was definitely a great way to end our Spring Break.  Also bumped into another Gorge Rat, Mike Jones, while on the run.  Mike has done a ton for the Gorge community in the past few years, and it was great to finally meet him.  A stop into Fonta Flora Brewery afterward was a must as well.  Can't wait for the Brutus!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Little Bit of Everything

There are some days that just trump all and become something that you wish you could just relive everyday.  Of course life gets in the way, responsibilities weigh down on you, and life outside of yourself needs to be attended first.  But every so often, you get one of those free days that you are truly free to do what you want and enjoy and nothing much to hold you back.  Yesterday was one of those days.

I met up with Jody early in the morning and we headed out to our planned adventure of the day, a 12 mile scenic bonanza of long range views and waterfalls in the Harper Creek and Little Lost Cove Wilderness.  After a beautiful ride up NC 181 and down Pineola Rd, we reached the trailhead of Little Lost Cove Cliffs Trail.  While our legs quickly warmed up on the short but steep climb up to the cliffs,  I could tell that the day was going to be amazing.  The weather was ideal and once we arrived at our first view looking over the Wilson Creek valley and up the slopes of Grandfather Mountain my feelings were confirmed.  We had only been running for less than a mile and we already were in awe.  A beautiful and quick descent later we were staring up at the grandeur of North Harper Creek Falls.  Immediately after, we shuffling down the rock face of Chestnut Cove Falls and then down the amazing trail that is North Harper Creek, along with its many creek crossings.  We next came upon Bard Falls, which after looking at it from the bottom of the pool, I finally realized how big this fall actually is.  It has always been one of my favorites and couldn't help but wish the temp outside was a tad warmer to take a dip in its excellent swimming hole.  Granted, less than a mile later I was waist deep in North Harper Creek before ascending Persimmon Ridge Trail back to Pineola Rd.

We had already seen 3 waterfalls on the day and were heading to our next 3 in the Little Lost Cove Wilderness.  After the climb out, the downhill along the MST to Hunt Fish Falls was welcomed.  Hunt Fish Falls didn't disappoint, even though it is one of the smaller falls in the entire area.  I took Jody up to the campsite above the falls, to this day my favorite place I've ever camped, and then we took off on up Lost Cove.  Our next destination was he marvelous Little Lost Cove Falls.  This fall had eluded me for almost 4 years until a couple of months ago, and since that first visit in February, this was my third trip to the falls!  We approached from the bottom and I enjoyed the sight of Spring wildflowers along the path to the lower fall.  After some scrambling around the lower fall, we made our way up to the even more majestic upper fall.  We tried to scramble up even higher to the upper reaches of the fall, but the way was looking a little more difficult then I was willing to go on the day so we steeply headed up to Little Lost Cove Rd to get back to our car.  Just as we were about to finish our run, from the corner of my eye I glimpsed a field of daffodils.  We jogged over to the field and admired the Spring blooms and named it Little Lost Cove Gardens.  It was a fitting end to our adventure. 

After our run, we headed down to the local watering hole, Fonta Flora.  Fonta Flora brewery is one of my favorite new breweries.  The brewmaster is extremely creative with his recipes and the fruits of his labor pay off big with complex, but highly drinkable creations.  While enjoying our frothy beverages, our conversation started leaning towards the gorge.  Although Jody had been to many places in the gorge, he had yet to explore the area around Shortoff.  With Shortoff only being a short 25 minute drive from the brewery I jokingly suggested we check it out now.  Jody said, "Yeah, why not?"  Next thing I know we are at the Wolf Pit trailhead and on our way up to the Olson Trail.

We hiked with purpose up Wolf Pit and in 22 minutes we were on Olson.  Jody was already stunned with the landscape just from hiking up Wolf Pit.  I knew what he was about to see next would blow his mind.  Two words to describe Olson Trail, astonishing and thrilling.  It is truly awe inspiring and a must for anyone that visits the gorge, except those folks with vertigo.  After getting off Olson we played around the summit of Shortoff, checked out an arete, and then took off back to the car and finished our second adventure of the day.  The day truly had a little bit of everything.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Leatherwood (aka Muddywood) Mountain 50 Mile Report

What can I say?  The challenge that was promised delivered, and so much more.  I knew what I was getting into when I decided to run this race, but at the same time I didn't.  Mud, Mud, Muddy, Mud, Mud, Mud!  I have never seen so much mud!  Below I will chronicle my experience at the Leatherwood (aka Muddywood) Mountian Ultras.

It was cool Spring morning, dew laid on the grass, while the sounds of a gentle but slightly swollen creek bounced off the ridges above, mixing with the songs of birds welcoming the new day.  The star spangled banner began and I watched the others as they silently and nervously reflected on the challenge they were about to set foot on.  I was ready to run, explore new trails and ridges, and bask in the atmosphere that was surrounding the event.  Everyone was so welcoming, so supportive, and I was surrounded by many dear friends.  This was a race and atmosphere that anyone who was not a participant would be envious of, but I was not racing.  I embarked on my run of one of the loops after the 50 milers had taken off and planned to be back at the barn for a long day of volunteering and hanging out.  I thoroughly enjoyed the trail, the scenery, and the atmosphere surrounding the event and I went home upset that I hadn't signed up for it after it was all said and done.  I wouldn't make that mistake again.

Soon after registration opened up for this year's running, I immediately signed up.  I couldn't wait to get back out there and make this run my first official attempt at a 50 miler.  Training leading up to the race started strong, but progressively got worse and I showed up the night before feeling under trained, but well rested.  I had ambitions of being competitive, but now I had changed to the mindset of surviving my first official 50.

From experience with the trails last year, I knew that a little rain could make them extremely muddy and slick.  Last year, a Spring storm came through the night before and left many muddy sections, but they were manageable.  With the forecast of rain Friday and Saturday I knew things would be messy, so I was prepared.  Graciously, friend and race director Tim put Hannah and I up for the night in their rented cabin so we could miss out on the rain, but as we went to bed there was nothing falling.  We had escaped the rain on Friday and this had me a bit more confident that the forecasted rain for Saturday would be less intense than originally thought.  Hannah, Terri, Jonathan (eventual 2nd place finisher) and I helped make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the aid stations while we caught up on life.  It was actually a relaxing way to spend the night before the big race.

Race morning arrived and outside there was just a slight mist falling.  My assumptions that the rain would be holding off for the most part were seeming to come true.  Confidence in the day ahead grew and before I knew it we were all off, enjoying the mile of pavement before we hit our first climb.  I stayed steady and was feeling comfortable as I slowly ran up the first major climb of the day.  I was in about 12th place at the time and felt that was a good place to be.  Once we finally hit some real trail, the footing was not all that bad other than in some steeper sections near streams.  I ran with a couple of French runners that now reside in New York and struck up some light conversation.  I kept looking out into the mist as well, hoping that the system would eventually break and open up some of the views I knew where there.  But the weather did not break up, the rain instead intensified and began to fall in steady waves for the rest of the day.  This made the first loop a bit tricky in spots, but it reminded me of last year's muddy spots for the most part.  I shared the last few miles into the 3rd aid station back at the start with the eventual female winner of the 50 miler and we talked about mountain running, trails, and of course the weather.

I came into the 3rd aid station feeling really good and was ready to hit the next loop.  I was on my time goal for the race and felt pretty strong.  I climbed up Ambush trail, which was astonishingly pretty solid footing considering what it looked like last year.  But afterwards it became a completely different story.  The trail became so slick that there was no entertaining running up most of the hills and even running the flats was a chore and had me sliding all around.  I was beginning to become annoyed when we finally hit some gravel and then some pavement!  I could make up some time and I did! I did get passed during this stretch by one of the Frenchmen as I took a bit longer at the aid station.  After the road ended, we had our first and only true creek crossing.  It was quite nice as it washed off a lot of the mud that was caked everywhere on my lower body.  But then it returned to muddy trail.  I was beginning to start feeling the day's effort and the conditions were just making things worse for me mentally. 

I finally hit the Rawhide aid station and looked forward to getting to back to the start/finish to call it a day and quit.  I was hitting my low point of the day and the trail wasn't getting any better.  Actually, the stretch between Rawhide and the start/finish was the worst section of trail I ended up being on all day.  My mind was in drop mode.  I finally reached the start/finish and told Hannah I thought I was done.  She would have none of it and convinced me to get back out on next 10 mile loop.  I argued with her saying that the trail was terrible and that this next 10 mile loop was going to be the worst.  She still kicked my butt out of the aid station and apparently her pep talk helped another runner head out as well with me. 

I was tired and things were starting to slow down.  I tried to run as much as I could through the slick mud and tired legs.  The last 10 mile loop was surprisingly the least muddy of all the loops in my opinion.  About half way through this loop, we got passed by the lead runner on his second and final loop of the course and he was crushing it.  This made me motivated to run a bit more, but soon after, while on some flat trail I began to feel a terrible side stitch that hurt me while running.  I had to start walking a lot more, even on the flats and I felt my time slipping away.  I finished me first 10 mile loop in 2:22.  That is is 22 minutes slower than what I was planning and I was actually hoping to finish those loops in under 2 hours to reach my time goal.

Of course, Hannah pushed me back out there, along with the help and encouragement of Jeff who gave me a most delectable PayDay Bar.  I couldn't stop now after that offering.  I shuffled slowly along the flat road to the start of the trail and then began my feast.  I chowed down on that PayDay and then chowed down on another granola peanut bar I had in my pack.  500 calories later and I was ready for a nap.  I think that it may have been a bit too much to eat, but after 30 minutes I was moving the quickest I had been since the second loop.  I finally passed a couple of runners and then hit the home stretch of the last mile of road to the the finish.  Once I hit the the pavement I began to get worried about the guy behind me.  I had just passed him maybe a mile back and I knew that he was moving quicker than I on the flats.  My side stitch was creeping back in, but I had to choose to push through it.  I knew I was on the cusp of a top 10 finish and I didn't want to give that up.  I picked up the pace on the road and was able to hold him off, but only by about 20-30 seconds.  I was glad to be finished and a cracked open a celebratory PBR that I was able to snag from the Rawhide aid station.  My mom and dad had showed up to see me finish and I collapsed on the ground and just laid down on the wet grass for awhile. It was a fitting ended to the run.

After a couple days reflection, I think that I will be back next year for the 50k.  I really enjoyed the first 2 loops and my 50k time out there was very good while pacing for a 50 miler at that.  Plus, I want to see all the views I missed along the course because of the fowl weather.  Hopefully, the weather next year will cooperate and for once the trails will be dry!

coming into Rawhide
done with first loop
finishing the first loop
coming into the finish