Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Report: Grandfather Mountain races

This past weekend I ran in two races in the highlands of Western North Carolina: The Bear 5 Mile Uphill Run, held on Thursday night and the Grandfather Mountain Marathon, held on Saturday morning.

Although the main attraction was the Scottish Highland Games on Grandfather Mountain, these two running races and the 100km cycling event comprised the "King/Queen of the Mountain" competition. Our friend Denine rocked all three events.

Andrea and I were guests of a local running buddy and his family at their summer vacation cabin near Boone. For several years, he had raved about the challenging highland races and the beauty of this part of Appalachia. This year was our turn to see for ourselves.

Training: With a goal marathon still 15 weeks away, I have been building up a mileage base over the past two months. Prior to this weekend, I finished 6 weeks of 50+ miles per week of easy running without speedwork. This weekend was a treat to add some hills to the mix.

The Bear 5 mile Uphill Run:
"The Bear" is the better attended event which starts in Linville and rises over 1,500' to finish atop the mile-high Grandfather Mountain at 5,200'. The race starts at 7pm on Thursday with about 800 entrants. The quality of field was obvious with many competitive local HS and college runners. The top runners earn the coveted "Bear" coffee mug.

Grandfather Mountain with McRae Meadows, home of the Highland Games, in the foreground.

My buddy, who I am a little faster than, ran 42 minutes last year so I thought 40 minutes was a good goal. I should be able to run my "easy pace" up the hill, right?

I admit to a little trepidation before the start -- we don't have mountains like this in NE Ohio. To me, the nervousness felt similar prior to my first parachute jump in the Army. Andrea mentioned it felt like we were being walked to the guillotine. I warmed-up for 2.5 miles and lined up in the second row from the start.

The gun sounded and it was uphill right away. I immediately noticed that there was no chatter and only heavy breathing by all. The pack was tight and after 5 minutes of climbing I looked at my HR monitor to see 186, only a beat or two shy of my most recent recorded max. I was toast. I reach mile 1 (7:42) and know I was out way too fast. What else was there to do but keep on?

I backed off and continued the climb on a shaded forest dirt road. I knew I was in for a tussle when I was out of breath and reached mile 2 (8:25). The third mile flattened out a bit as we ran through the campground and track for the Highland Games. We were greeted by kilted clansmen and bagpipes as we circled the track.

Leaving the track was a steep uphill through the grass to reach the road surface and was still running (slowly) to arrive at mile 3 (8:27). By now I knew sub-40 minutes was unlikely as I was in serious oxygen debt.

We confronted the first set of switchbacks in mile 4 (10:04) -- this is where I gave in. I walked. Several times. I caught my breath and did the ultra run-walk but kept moving upwards.

With one mile to go, another set of switchbacks came into view. Nearly everyone around me -- myself included -- said, "oh shit" as we could fully see the remaining climb to the peak of Grandfather Mountain. It was now that I wish I did not take this race so seriously -- I could not get enough oxygen into my lungs.

Traversing the final turns, the cheers grew louder and helped speed the pace. The final 400 meters was one final steep uphill similar to a Tour de France hill climb with a run through large crowds on both sides of the road. The clouds thickened as I reached the the summit mile 5 (8:33) and it felt like we ran into the sky. I crested the peak, entering the finishing chute at 43:11, 94th of 819 finishers, and was surprised to receive a coveted "Bear" coffee mug. Sweet!

The top male finished 31:50 and top female 38:44.

Though I had no speedwork under my belt, it was painfully clear that I was in no shape to race here. This Ohioan is out of his league when it comes to mountain-climbing, and it showed. I wish I would have not taken it so seriously and brought my camera. Those steep switchbacks are hard to describe in words.

The good news is that there was no lingering effect or muscle soreness -- only temporary cardiovascular punishment. Upon finishing, it was a quick recovery as I regained by breath. The clouds rolled in to obscure our mountain top view but we enjoyed the mile-high bridge before returning down on the shuttle van.

Looking down at the switchbacks in the final mile.

Grandfather Mountain Marathon:
I took the marathon a little less serious and brought along the camera. The goal was to get in a good long run without causing too much muscle soreness. I had heard that a decent time is about 30 minutes slower than "flat" marathon, so I targeted 3:30-3:35, or about 8:00 per mile pace.

The Grandfather Mountain Marathon is a course that is never flat -- always going up or down, but mostly up. Here is the elevation profile recorded from a garmin device:

The race started on the track of Appalachian State University in Boone.

With Denine, our Queen of the Mountain.

And we're off!

I made the mistake of drinking too much coffee in the morning and I had to pee before even leaving the track. It worked out well since I was now at the back of the field of 400 runners. This helped me to take it out slow and talk to some of the other runners in the early miles. The first two miles are the easiest of the race -- a slight downhill stretch through the city of Boone before heading into the hills.

Mile 2: 16:59

The hills hit me right away and I knew this would be a long day, but I intended to take in the scenery:

Mile 3

Mile 4 - Up the hill

Mile 5 - going up

Mile 6 - Christmas tree farm

Miles 6 through 10 climbed a winding road that delivered us on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Blowing Rock, NC. Miles 11-13 were a glorious downhill stretch on the Parkway with tremendous views. Without changing effort, I recorded my fastest mile of the day in the 11th mile (7:17) and neared the half on pace for 3:40.

Mile 13: 1:48:18 (no marker for 13.1)

Mile 12 - On the Blue Ridge Parkway with Grandfather Mountain in the distance.

Mile 13 - View from the Blue Ridge Pkwy

Mile 14 - Grandfather Mountain in the background. The finish line is on the other side

The second half of the race is mostly uphill and miles 16-17 follow a dirt road.

Mile 16 with Grandfather looming in the distance

Mile 17 - Steep uphill dirt road

Mile 18 - Still going up

Mile 20: 2:47:37

I took less pictures in miles 18-24 and concentrated on the task of climbing this mountain. These were some of the best miles of the day. Due to my conservative start, I got into a good groove and started picking off runners ahead. Without really speeding up, I estimate passing about 25-30 runners in the final ten miles.

These last eight miles were on State Hwy 221, a winding road which was not closed to traffic. Not only did we have to negotiate the mountain climb, there was some car dodging on the blind corners, too.

On this warm and clear day, the mostly tree-lined course protected us from the sun. The aid stations were spaced a little farther apart than optimal, every 2-3 miles, so I did make a point to walk through each station to ensure consumption of 6-10 fluid ounces at each. Nutrition-wise, I stuck with water only, Succeed! capsules (3 total) at 0:45, 1:45, and 2:45, and a Gu gel (3 total) at 1:15, 2:00, and 2:45.

The 24th mile provided a steep, but short, downhill pitch before the diabolical final two miles uphill to the finish at McRae Meadows. We crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway for the last time and entered the stadium and a lap around the track to the cheers of the crowds at the Highland Games.

Final time: 3:39:09
42nd place of 351 finishers

Grandfather Mountain was the most difficult road marathon course I've run. We hung around to watch all the finishers until the 6 hour cutoff. With such a small field, magnificent course, and the Highland Games as a backdrop, the post-race camaraderie and stories were highly animated.

I will cherish my time in the highlands of North Carolina. Thanks for reading.

McRae Meadows - Home of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games

Queens of the Mountain: Denine, Annette, Jane


Blogger The Sean said...

Nice report, I just ran the GMM Saturday, after a 50k 5 weeks ago it was a stark difference and a great reminder that the Marathon is to be respected. A great challenge.

12:24 PM  

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