For anyone who even happens upon this blog, and even knows who the hell I am, you will be glad to know that I actually did what us self professed endurance athletes are supposed to do...RACE!
On November 7, 2009, I completed the Shut In Ridge Trail Run. This is not really a race, but a running adventure to be survived. The finish line is over 3000 feet higher than the starting line. There is about 5000 feet of climbing and 2000 feet of very technical and tricky downhill. It starts at the North Carolina Arboredum in Asheville, NC.
I trained for this race, as I would a marathon, with 5-6 runs a week, which included a track workout, or hill repeats on Tuesdays; Easy Days on Wednesdays and Fridays; Thurdays are for tempo runs and Sunday is a long run on the Shut in Trail and surrounding trails that are near the Arboredum and Bent Creek. Getting workouts sent to me and getting coaching by Norm Blair, the race director and owner of Jus Running prepared me, along with training with past top-10 finishers. I am really thankful for the help of the "Maggots"in preparing me for this challenge.
The beginning of the course begins innocently enough through the gentle, rolling, well landscaped roads of the Arboredum. This leads people to take off fast, like they would their local 10k. As we got deeper into the property, we hit an ironically named road called Hard Times Road. That is where the uphill begins. In my flatlander days, this would be considered difficult. Now it is a warmup. From Hard Times we hit the first single track, which is where the race really begins.
The Shut In Trail is the singletrack trail George Vanderbilt took his friends up to his hunting lodge at the top of Mt. Pisgah, from his castle fiefdom, better known as the Biltmore Estate. It is also part of the Mountains to Sea Trail that connects the mountains all the way to the coast of North Carolina. It also zig zags across the Blue Ridge Parkway, a fantastic recreational motorway, which gently snakes through the National Parks and Forests that go from Virgina to North Carolna.
Hard Times road does not seem so hard, when you get the first taste of the Shut In trail. Immediately, we were on an uphill grade that people were walking. Wise trail runners walk these sections, because it is impossible to gain any speed by trying to run. The advantage versus energy wasted give the walkers the advantage. I even passed people who were trying to run, while I was in a brisk hike. There are also switchbacks and many rocks, roots and even small stream crossings.
My pace was in the first three miles through the Arboredum and hard times was slow. I ran at an 8:30 pace and I was way back in the pack. This stategy was advised to me by many veterans of the race. The race gets more difficult as it goes along. Leaves, rocks, roots and other obsicles require extra energy. Fatigue can turn these things into a race ending accidents. In the dark moments of a road marathon, you can zone, put one foot in front of the other and think happy thoughts, not so with a trail race. Zone out on the Shut-In and you will be eathing dirt and pcking a rock out of your kneecap. Therefore, I ran my own race and conserved my pace.
The conditions were another factor, From when I started trail running at the Arboredum in August, the weather was mild and rarely exceeded 70 degrees, especially in the weeks leading up with the race, where it was in the 40's and 50's. On race day, it shot up into the mid-70's. Most of the leaves fell the week before, making them slippery and thick, leaving many treacherous suprises undereath. For instance the 2008 winner won again this year, but was 15 minutes slower. The heat did not bother me too much, but the leaves made me pucker my arse on the downhills.
Those runners who treated it as a race in the early stages were starting to show up on the side of the trail, stopped at relief stations, or just in a pittiful shuffle. I seemed to be stronger on the uphill sections, passing several people at a time, only to have them pass me back on the downills (good for the that this race is mostly uphill), then they would stop at relief stations, never to be seen again. I really lost count of the folks I passed along the way. It was odd, because I was crawling along quite slowly. It was like the hare versus the tortise and I was the tortise.
One of the nice things about the Shut-In race is the trails criss-crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway. Friends and family can cheer on and provide supplies for their peeps who are competing. It was uplifting to see Christa and Jensen. I would pat little dude on the head and he would try to follow me into the woods. It was also fun to get cheered on by my fellow "Maggots" who I run with on Tuesdays at Jus Running.
The race was steady and pretty uneventful until the 16 mile mark, or where the trail and Parkway crosses 151. The last 2 miles are legendary. It is straigt uphill. Guys who are winning the local 10k's at times of 31 minutes, run this last two miles in 25 to 27 minutes. There is a lot of carnage along that part of the trail. The girl who was leading the women lost 90 minutes in that section and became a middle of the packer, after dominating the first 16 miles. Those last 2 miles make or break the complexion of the race.
I smoothly ran and power hiked the first mile of that section and passed a couple of people, including the female leaders. There was a section that flattened out and there was a spectacular view. That did not last too long, before it became a straight uphill wall of rocks, roots and misery. My legs cramped up and I fell. At that point, I knew it was within the last mile no way that I was going to become another casualty. After getting back up and walking like Frankenstein, I got my legs back and finished the climb. At the end, I hooked up with another runner and let him have some Gatorade. We pushed each other the rest of the way and finished withing a couple of seconds of each other.
My time was 3 hours, 11 minutes and change. That earned me a 17th place finish, which was good enough for the coveted stained glass which is awarded to the first 20 men and first 10 women. I really could not have been any happier with the result. It was a hard race, but a lot of fun. It was nice to have my family and my running family at the top of the mountain. The only thing I will do differently next year is to take in more nutrition and start out a little faster. Shut In is now my favorite race.