As recent tradition dictates, I'll write something about the Laurel Valley race I ran this past Saturday.
- This was marathon/ultra #8 for 2011; one in each month.
- I'd heard about Laurel Valley for a few years. I was frankly scared by all the stuff on the website and release waiver form you have to send in.
- There aren't too many marathons or ultras in the area in the month of August. In fact this is the only one I know of. So I decided it was cool.
- Laurel Valley is unique among long races I have done, in that there are no aid stations. There are also no road crossings for the entire 35+ mile route. So there is really nowhere to drop out, and you have to carry everything you need for the entire race. You basically have to finish, or go back to the start. The race director sends "sweeps" runners behind the field, who are instructed to pass no one and help anyone out who runs into trouble.
- Laurel Valley is held in the mountain region of far northwest South Carolina and western North Carolina. The course starts in a place called Rocky Bottom. Numerous rivers and streams flowing down out of the mountains empty into Lake Jocassee. This race is all about descending and ascending out of all of those river gorges. And there are approximately 5,000 stairs, plus other big climbs with very few switchbacks.
- It was fun to meet fellow competitors at the dinner the night before. It was not fun to get up at 4:25 for the race.
- Race start was at 6:00 a.m. My thoughts were that I didn't want to wear a headlamp for only a few minutes, and then have to carry it all day. I figured that the sun would come up after only 20 minutes or so, and that I could steal a little light from a headlamp from someone running near me. This didn't work out so well. I started too near the back of the field. Once a couple of people passed me who had lights, I was stumbling and bumbling along a rocky trail hoping not to turn my ankle or fall off a cliff. And the sun wasn't sufficient for me to see, under the thick forest canopy, until about 45 minutes into the race. So, I went slow. Really slow.
- My pants wouldn't stay up. I do like the Race Ready brand shorts. They have lots of pockets. I had a bunch of stuff in them. I had Nuun, Endurolytes, packs of snack mix, Honey Stinger waffles, and gels. All this stuff bounced when I ran and that was the problem. So I ate a bunch of my stuff early. This helped my pants stay up better.
- I carried a camera to take photos. I hope you enjoyed them on Facebook. I did.
- After about 1.5 hours and a couple waterfall views, a somewhat large group of runners and I filled up our bottles at a small stream. (I used a special filtration bottle, along with Nuun in my water.) The legendary Bill Keane was holding court, and instructing several of us newbies about a huge ascent ahead of us. He told us there were several false summits, and then finally a hellacious descent down nearly vertical stairs on the other side; and that we should keep a distance between us in case someone fell down the stairs, potentially injuring everyone ahead of them. This guy knew what he was talking about. He's run the Laurel Valley race 15 times now, and has completed 255 ultra marathons. I appreciated his expertise.
- It was somewhat surreal to be running through a seeming wilderness, and then come upon these really well-engineered suspension bridges across wide rivers. The Foothills Trail is pretty awesome.
- Every 45 minutes or so, I seemed to catch Bill and another runner as we filled up our water bottles. I was particularly grateful when he showed me a spring which came out of the mountain just above the trail. That was amazingly cold and refreshing water. Much better than the water I had been filtering from the rivers and streams.
- At this point, Bill suggested that I stay with him and another runner named David. I was game for this. But as soon as we began to run, David promptly crumpled to the ground and tried to throw up. Then he laid down beside the trail on his back. This presented somewhat of a dilemma, as we didn't know what to do now. David insisted that Bill and I leave him and that he would feel better in 20 minutes or so. Finally we relented and left David lying on his back beside the trail.
- I was content to run with Bill and glean as much wisdom as possible from him. He had some good tips which I won't share with you, because you might beat me at the next mountain race.
- We passed a good number of runners who either hit the wall, or got an early start at 5:00 a.m.
- Laurel Valley's distance is unknown. Everyone agrees it's 35 miles or more. Some say 40. Most say that the isolation and hills and August heat make the race seem more like a 50 Miler. One year, a wheel was used to measure the course. Unbeknownst to the runners pushing the wheel, the counter fell off somewhere on the course. That is humorous.
- This race never seems to end. Really. I mean it. Really. It was even longer than this blog entry. As we neared the last 5 miles, the heat subsided and thunder rumbled. Then it rained. Really hard. A real gulley-washer. I had to keep moving to stay warm now. I even left Bill. I felt bad about that. But really, not so much. I guess I wanted to beat him. I mean, he is old.
- Then we got to the Whitewater River. I climbed up a slick boulder to get to the bridge. I was feeling pretty good about things I guess. And then Bill passed me from out of nowhere. Go Bill!
- A lot of stairs were at the end. We were at the bottom of Upper Whitewater Falls, and we had to climb all the way up. These falls are among the highest in the Eastern United States. So, we climbed what Bill calls the Stairway To Heaven.
- Tourists were at the observation deck to view the falls. You should have seen the looks on their faces when crazed fools emerged from 9.5 hours on the trail in August. They got out of our way.
- I snapped a final photo at the top and Bill went on ahead to beat me by a few seconds. I was glad to get to eat some potato chips and ginger snaps. And, there was lemonade. It was pretty good stuff.
- After the race, I decided that this race was too hard to ever try again. Of course, stupidity has now set in, and I would gladly line up for the race tomorrow, and I hope to run it every year if I can.
- I had thought I could finish this race in under 8 hours. I didn't come close. It took me 9:41:54. But, in my defense, I did take a lot of photos, and I started amazingly slowly. So, I think I can run faster next time.
- As I told someone else, it almost feels embarrassing to me when I'm congratulated for such a slow finish time. But, I do appreciate people's thoughts. Thank you.
- Bill gave me a ride back to my vehicle at the start. We saw a bear run across the road a few feet in front of us.
Here is a mile by mile breakdown of my performance at the Laurel Valley 35+ Mile Ultra Race.
Mile 1 – slow
Mile 2 – slow
Mile 3 – slow
Mile 4 – slow
Mile 5 – slow
Mile 6 – slow
Mile 7 – slow
Mile 8 – slow
Mile 9 – slow
Mile 10 – slow
Mile 11 – slow
Mile 12 – slow
Mile 13 – slow
Mile 14 – slow
Mile 15 – slow
Mile 16 – slow
Mile 17 – slow
Mile 18 – slow
Mile 19 – slow
Mile 20 – slow
Mile 21 – slow
Mile 22 – slow
Mile 23 – slow
Mile 24 – slow
Mile 25 – slow
Mile 26 – slow
Mile 27 – slow
Mile 28 – slow
Mile 29 – slow
Mile 30 – slow
Mile 31 – slow
Mile 32 – slow
Mile 33 – slow
Mile 34 – slow
Mile 35 – slow
If you analyze these splits, you can see that I ran slowly.
(For my readers in Europe, the following breakdown is applicable: Kilometres 1 thru 56 = slow.)
Here are some thoughts about running, from me:
I remember when I decided to run a few miles a week so that I could stay in shape.
Then I heard about a local 5K at work, and I thought I could probably run alright in one of those. I hadn’t raced since high school.
That went well, so I decided I’d race the Turkey Trot 8K at Thanksgiving. And I did this every year for about 10 years.
But a half marathon sounded like almost an accomplishment. I think I will try one. That wasn’t so bad. But I could never run a whole marathon.
But if I could just run my everyday training pace for the whole marathon, it would be about 3.5 hours. Well, that wasn’t so bad after all.
No way I can ever cut 20 minutes off of that time and qualify for the Boston Marathon.
There are half marathons on trails? In the woods? That sounds like fun! So I ran those too.
In the meantime, I also eventually qualified for Boston. I wonder if I could take just a few more minutes off and be a sub-3 hour guy??
Yeah, I finally did that too.
People run farther than 26.2 miles? Really? Well a 50K is only a marathon plus 5 miles. I bet I could at least finish…. And I did.
You know, I think I like running in the mountains. I’ll try to run a few ultra marathons there too.
They have a 40 mile race to the top of the highest mountain in the Eastern USA? In the winter? No way! That’s crazy. Hey, but it was fun!
An unsupported ultra marathon in mountain wilderness? Carrying everything I need? Sure, why not.
So that’s what has happened. What is next?
A 50 mile race? Probably.
A 100 mile race? Probably not. This doesn’t speak to me. Too boring, and probably many repeats on a loop course. I doubt I’ll ever run one of these races.
But these are what I really want to do, eventually: The Foothills Trail 77 mile ultra, end-to-end. The Pitchell 100K+, 67 miles from the summit of Mount Pisgah to the summit of Mount Mitchell on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. And SCAR, the Smokies Challenge Adventure Run: 71 miles on the Appalachian Trail through the length of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Any of these three adventures will require many hours of night running in the wilderness. And that will be a new challenge.