Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Another county collector

Our friend Lesley, who is also a runner, is working on her own collection of all 100 North Carolina counties by traveling and visiting all of them -- and blogging about it -- in her North Carolina Odyssey Project.

Monday, December 21, 2009

2009 Year in Review

Well, we've pretty much exhausted all of our planned opportunities to collect counties in 2009, so let's take a look to see how we progressed this year:

Marriages: 1
Chad's new (or extended) counties in 2009 (4): Swain, Carteret, Harnett, Randolph
Brad's new (or extended) counties in 2009 (14): Swain, Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland, Davidson, Pender, Carteret, Hertford, Alamance, Jackson, Avery, Dare, Harnett, Randolph

Chad's total counties: 28
Brad's total counties: 29
Combined total counties: 39

So what did we enjoy this year? Getting to run several races together was a lot of fun, as we did at Swain County's Tsali Frosty Foot Fest, Carteret County's Historic Beaufort 10k Road Race and Harnett County's Raven Rock Rumble 10-Mile Trail Run. Randolph County's Run to Victory half-marathon was fun, but cold! Hopefully we can hit more counties together in 2010.

Chad got to run with his new wife at the Historic Beaufort 10k Road Race in Carteret County, with his parents spectating and lots of Raleigh friends around to keep him company. Brad had a surprising age-group win at the Hoke 5k All-American Trail Run in Hoke County. Brad also had a blast at the early-morning Fort Bragg Army Birthday 10-Miler in Cumberland County and enjoyed the small-town atmosphere at the North Carolina Watermelon Festival 5k in Hertford County.

We literally crossed the whole state in the tour bus this year, from Swain County in the mountains to Dare County on the ocean. Thanks to all our running friends for joining us on this quixotic quest this year, and we hope y'all will come run with us around the state in 2010! With some favorable scheduling, good weather and healthy knees, we will look forward to seeing some more of this beautiful state in the year ahead! Happy New Year, and Happy Running!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Randolph County - Run to Victory Half-Marathon - December 13, 2009

"These are the worst weather conditions we've had," shouted Run To Victory sponsor and NASCAR driver Kyle Petty before the race, "but the largest turnout!" Naturally, that brought a big cheer from the cold, wet runners waiting for the green flag to wave.

449 half-marathoners and 312 5-milers completed Sunday's Run to Victory race, which benefits the Victory Junction Camp in Randleman, NC in Randolph County. Randolph County, which is the home of the Petty family, is just south of Greensboro. The Pettys organized and founded the Victory Junction Camp, which helps kids with various chronic medical conditions and serious illnesses, in memory of their son Adam, who was killed in a racing accident years ago. The Run to Victory is a big fundraiser and benefit for the camp.

Chad beat me to the Run to Victory a couple of years ago, but it worked out we could run it together this year in addition to our friends William, Jennifer, Ann, Karin and my cousin Ginny. Unfortunately we got saddled with some really ugly running weather, with temperatures in the 30s at race time, spitting rain with potential for showers, and enough wind to be annoying. We were all in a good mood for the pre-race worship service in the gym at Randleman Middle School, but once we started moving outside for the start, the outside overhang was the popular place to be until right before the start when we finally moved to the finish line. Kyle Petty and running personality John Bingham -- who had spoken to the North Carolina Roadrunners Club meeting the Thursday before -- welcomed all the runners and then one of the Victory Junction campers waved the green flag to start us all.

The first couple of miles were actually kind of pleasant as we wound our way through the city part of Randleman. It didn't hurt that the first mile was mostly downhill, either. Eventually the 5-milers and the half-marathoners parted ways, and we were out in the rural part of the countryside, with only the other runners, aid station volunteers and deputies, and the occasional house full of barking dogs to keep us company. One out-and-back section in a neighborhood gave all the half-marathoners a chance to see most of the other runners and offer some encouragement. And it turns out Randolph County has a good set of hills, too!

The first four miles went by very quickly, and then we got into some of the more severe hills were the runners got more strung out along the distance and it seemed to get longer and longer between the aid stations, which were about two miles apart. Some of the folks I was running with were very encouraging, and I also tried to keep up folks' spirits wherever I could. There was very good support from the county's sheriff's department, and News 14 had a crew out on the course getting runner footage wherever they could. The weather continued to be a downer as it never really warmed up much. William had provided us with garbage bags for our outside layer and they were a big help in keeping the rain off us and blocking the wind a little bit. I wanted to shed my garbage bag after a while, but I was convinced that if I did the rain would come down heavy for sure, so I ended up wearing it most of the race. Fortunately I had my Garmin on and was able to keep track of our progress, which would have been hard otherwise since the miles weren't marked in a big way.

Finally, after what seemed like a very long tour of every part of Randolph County, we could see the water tower for Victory Junction Camp (painted like a hot-air balloon) above the treeline. (We had been able to hear the loud finish-line music at various points along the course, too.) We made a big turn into the camp and got to see the colorful, welcoming decorations that must be a welcome sight for the campers and their families whenever they visit. We made various turns through the welcome center and then went down through a tunnel and back up a hill, and then we could see the main camp area ahead of us with all of the finish line decorations and celebrations. It was a great brief downhill, and then we had to go back up again for the "victory circle" around the main camp area to the finish line, where Kyle Petty and his wife Pattie high-fived a lot of the finishers and where we got our hefty Run to Victory medals with a bas-relief John Bingham penguin on the back. (Kyle Petty autographed some of the finishers' medal ribbons but unfortunately I didn't get to see him.)

Fortunately, immediately after the finish chute we were able to turn right into the camp cafeteria, where it was wonderfully warm and they had beef, turkey or 3-bean chili and cornbread for all the runners, along with hot chocolate and various drinks to get us re-heated and re-hydrated. We also got to pick up our checked gear bags and change into the warm, dry clothes we had packed for the post-race. The food and drink were wonderful, and before too long we were feeling just about back to normal temperature and ready for the shuttle bus ride back to the starting area.

Everything about the Run to Victory was first-class, from the support of the Pettys and John Bingham, to the pre-race worship service, to the great medals and race shirts, to the finish in Victory Junction Camp and the care they took of us afterwards. This race has a great reputation in its short life, and with an experience like this it's easy to see why. Hopefully the weather will be a little warmer next time we get to run in Randolph County!

Unfortunately, my marathon cap was a casualty of the race. It has been with me through many, many miles and it had a good life. Time to find another hat that I can destroy next time out.

Digital Triad has some video from the race.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Harnett County - Raven Rock Rumble 10-Mile Trail Race - November 21, 2009

"It's not a trail race unless your feet get wet," proclaimed Andrew Benbow, the race director for the Raven Rock Rumble 10-mile trail race at Raven Rock State Park in Harnett County outside Lillington. Benbow had been talking about the condition of the course, which had seen significant rain in the previous week and had to be repaired somewhat by the Raven Rock staff in the last few days before the race.

Fortunately, the course was in excellent condition after all. Unfortunately, it was still just as tough, with all kinds of uphills and downhills and rocks and roots covered up with freshly-fallen leaves. The Rumble, though, has an excellent reputation among all kinds of runners as a well-organized and fun race to do in its three-year history, so when we were looking for an opportunity to do a race in Harnett County, just a few minutes to our south, it was a "natural" choice. This event, which includes a 5-mile option and a 10-mile option, is limited to 300 runners because of the size of the trails -- it's sold out each year -- and benefits both Special Olympics and the Friends of Raven Rock State Park.

It's great fun when Chad and I get to collect a new county together, and we certainly had more than our share of fun on this one. At first I thought the tour bus had rolled in too early, but with construction of a new Raven Rock State Park visitors' center, we had to park remotely and walk in and out to pick up our packets and drop them off back at the bus. So the early arrival worked to our advantage as we weren't rushed to get all the pre-race details taken care of. There was a good crowd of excited volunteers checking in runners and assembling a big supply of food and drink for us all. The long-sleeved t-shirts were great and included a big Rumble logo on the front. Worries about temperature were unfounded as well because it was a nice, clear morning and the temperatures rose pretty quickly as the sun got higher in the sky. So the runners wouldn't have to wear too many layers to keep warm before the race start.

Eventually all the 10-milers were assembled in the street and sent off by a very weak air horn down a quarter-mile or so of road so that we could spread out before entering the trails. (The 5-milers had a separate start and went a different way; the 5-mile route was the second half of the 10-mile route.) There was a brief traffic jam entering the trails, but it only took a few seconds before we were all lined up behind each other headed out down the single-track.

Mercifully, the first couple of miles were majority downhill, but there were a couple of sudden twists and rises as we navigated around trees, stumps and water. The trails were very well-marked and -maintained with nice bridges over some of the wetter spots. In the third mile I got to run with Chad for awhile along the top of a bluff where, if you were brave enough to take your eyes off the trail, there was a very pretty view of the Little River down and off to your right. Not long after that we were on the Fish Trap trail, which was basically straight down to the river's edge -- and right back up the way we came. As steep and tricky as that section of the trail was, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of rapids on the Little River right at the turnaround spot. The down-and-up turnaround was also a good chance to encourage the other runners in our speed group.

The rest of the race's first half was back up to the trails entrance and back down the road, past the starting area and a very welcome aid station (thanks for the strong Gatorade) and then out onto a different section of trails, the 5-mile loop that the other runners were covering. Again, this section started with a long downhill stretch, which was very welcome after struggling up from the Fish Traps. It was also a good chance to see some of the leading 10-mile runners and trailing 5-milers on their way to the finish line. "Enjoy this downhill," one of them offered, "because it's tough coming back up."

The second half of the race included more of the rocky, rooty, leaf-covered trails that we had enjoyed in the first half, along with some more sudden ups and downs. We had a couple more of the wet-foot stream crossings that Benbow had promised up front, but fortunately they weren't as bad as he had said. I nearly took a couple of spills in the second half, and Chad mentioned later that he had also been nearly caught by a couple of roots. This section of the race also included a really nice, peaceful stretch along one of the creeks that fed into Little River and also provided what felt at the time like a level stretch, although looking at the elevation data later, it was hard to find any real level spots in the race.

Sure enough, we were eventually headed back up the hill towards the finish area, and that big Finish arch was a very welcome sight. (I had been running on fumes since about the 8.5-mile mark.) Even though I was one of the last finishers, there was still a good crowd in the finish area cheering us all in. 110 runners had finished the 5-miler, and 155 finished the 10-miler. There was lots of food left for the finishers, but fluids were running low, so we didn't stick around long to check out the awards and prizes for the winners in each distance. That last walk back to the bus was tough for a couple of tired runners, but the drinks waiting for us there were great to see. We got to socialize with some of the other runners in the parking area, and then it was back on the road to head back home. Although the difficulty of the course was the main topic of the discussion on the way back, we both thought the Rumble was a very good, if challenging, trail race and we agreed with the reputation it has as a well-put-together race. Harnett County is fortunate to have the Raven Rock Rumble, and hopefully we can return again, too.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Dare County - OBX Half-Marathon - November 8, 2009

Chad beat me to Dare County a couple of years ago when he did the 2nd annual OBX Marathon, but I finally made it to the easternmost of North Carolina's 100 counties this year for the 4th annual half-marathon. The last couple of years, the OBX Marathon has embraced the "pirate" theme, with treasure-map medals, pirate-themed aid stations and finisher pictures, and this year the "pirate pack" -- eyepatch, bandana and cowbell -- being sold at the expo. Arrgh, indeed!

You never know what kind of weather you'll get the second Sunday of November on North Carolina's Outer Banks (OBX), but fortunately this year we were blessed with warm temperatures (getting hot as the day wore on), sunny skies and just enough wind to keep you cooled down. More than 6,500 runners were involved in the weekend's activities -- the marathon, the half, an 8k, and a kid's fun run. Great turnout -- they said it was their largest ever!

The marathon and half were point-to-point races, with the half starting around the midway point of the marathon, so that both races finished in the same spot. 3,390 finished the half-marathon and 1,815 finished the full. For those of us in the half, the starting area was nice and cool, clear but not bad with the sun still low, and just a bit breezy. We were organized into waves by expected pace times and then set off with separate starts about 3-5 minutes apart. I was really looking forward to having a very enjoyable run with no pressure on pace or finish times, so I was very glad to finally be moving and out on the OBX main drag.

Flat, flat, flat. Flat as a board. Flat as a pancake. There was very little elevation change, as you can imagine if you've ever been to OBX. We did a mile or two on the main road, passing the big Jockey's Ridge sand dunes, and then turned right into a subdivision with some very pretty homes and ran alongside the sound for a while before coming back out to the main road. I ran a great 5k, but it was too fast and I knew I'd be in trouble later on. After another couple of miles we made another turn into one of the subdivisions around Nags Head Golf Links for another tour of nice homes and surprised golfers. When we returned to the main drag, it was just after the halfway mark and, although I had turned a good 10k time, I was way off a reasonable pace and I knew I'd have to reckon with that mistake later on.

There were lots of spectators out early in the morning to cheer on the runners, from groups that had set up shop in parking lots to cyclists following the course to families sitting out at the end of the driveway having their morning coffee. One house in particular was all decorated and hosting a "marathon party". Lots of cute signs, lots of noisemakers and music. Someone had set out some Burmashave-style signs telling us about the OBX and giving some bad jokes. Great volunteers everywhere we ran, and very well-organized aid stations and water stops.

A couple more flat miles down the main drag and we were ready for The Bridge. The Washington-Baum Bridge, which extends from Nags Head to Roanoke Island, is more than a mile long and goes up from 82 feet above the water to 650 feet above the water at a 4% grade. The ten-mile mark is just before the crest of the bridge, and that was about my limit as far as what I could run comfortably. After getting past the downhill side of the bridge, I was satisfied to extend my walk breaks and coast the last three miles into Manteo for the finish.

The finish in "downtown" Manteo was really nice. A lot of the town, plus many, many spectators, came out to cheer the runners down the last mile or so to the finish line near what looked to be a local school or park area. After coasting in, I received a very nice half-marathon finish medal, a much-appreciated ice towel -- it had gotten steadily warmer as the sun climbed higher in the clear skies -- and a nice OBX visor. Lots of food, mylar blankets and drink were available to the finishers, and a group of pirates and wenches were available for having finisher pictures made. Once you left the runners' finish corral, it was much like a street fair setting, with food vendors, restaurants having sidewalk specials, craft sales, and the like. After enjoying the atmosphere with some other runners from Raleigh, it was on to the shuttle buses and a return trip to the half-marathon starting area -- and then on for some well-earned seafood!

I really enjoyed finally making it to Dare County for the OBX half-marathon (even if I had originally been shooting for the full marathon). It was great to see other Raleigh runners there in both races, including Rachel, Gary, Lena, Mike, Joey, Lee, Erin, Daniel, Karla and Frank -- and congratulations to Sheila for finishing her first half! Hopefully I'll be back to run OBX many, many more times.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Avery County - Wooly Worm Woad Wace 5-miler - October 17, 2009

Since we found out about the Wooly Worm Woad Wace a couple of years ago, we've been trying to work out the calendars to make it part of the countdown, but this is the first year one of us has been able to go. The wace had been a 10-miler in previous years, then a 10k, and now it was down to a 5-miler, so we figured we needed to check it out before it was eventually shortened to a fun wun -- uh, run.

The Wooly Worm Woad Wace is part of Banner Elk's Wooly Worm Festival, which is just about the biggest thing to hit the high county each fall other than maybe an Appalachian State playoff game. Estimates of 20,000 people come into town for the worm races, the music and entertainment, and the food. Each wooly worm has 13 brown-and-black bands that are supposed to correspond to the 13 weeks of winter, and the darker the band color, the colder and snowier that week of winter is supposed to be. But which worm gets to make the official winter weather prediction? Well, you race them in a series of heats up 3-foot lengths of string to select the prize wooly worm, and then that worm's banding becomes the official prediction of that winter's weather.

For the humans, there's a separate 5-mile race, the Wooly Worm Woad Wace. There was snow on the higher-elevation mountains on race morning, and there were snowflakes in the air pretty much all of the race as well. The temperature was a cold 34 degrees just before race time, and even after all the post-race festivities were complete, it was still only 39 degrees, with a prediction of more snow in the afternoon. But even with the bitterly-cold weather, a hearty x souls showed up for the race. The foliage was probably a couple of weeks ahead of Raleigh in terms of color, so those who turned out got to enjoy some really pretty vistas and colors.

The Wooly Worm Festival mascot, who was the only one dressed appropriately for the weather, greeted the runners and then the coach of the cross-country teams at Lees-McRae College (home of the Bobcats) organized us for the start and sent us off. The race started and finished with a lap around the LMC track and a loop around the athletics area and then we were out onto an adjacent road.

Running along the country mountain road was very pleasant, and we passed by scenic Wildcat Lake, which was smooth as glass in the morning. Then the course changed severely as we entered Holston Presbytery Camp, where the road changed to gravel and then we entered the HPC hiking trails. Wow, what a change as the elevations suddenly got crazy. There were some severe uphills, where it was all you could do to manage to keep going at any kind of pace. And the precipitation had changed some of the trails from gentle dirt to slippery mud. (There were some slip-n-slide tracks left over from the runners ahead of me.) Finally we got a bit of a break from the uphills and we entered a big recreational field at HPC where we got out into the long, wet grass and ran around one of the recreational lakes. Running through the long, wet grass and the wet sand was just as tiring as the hills. We finally made the turn back towards town and had to traverse the steep hills that we had just come up, but fortunately I found enough sure footing that I could keep a good pace on the downhill. It was a relief to get back out onto Hickory Nut Road and know the worst of the hills were behind me.

The rest of the trip back to Lees-McRae was nice and pleasant, although the HPC trails and hills had pretty much wiped me out. I had just enough left for the return lap around the athletic complex and the final lap around the track. (My Garmin tracked the distance to be about 5.25 miles instead of 5 even, but who's counting?) They had some much-appreciated post-race food and drink for us, and then they ushered us back inside the gym to get us out of the cold for the race awards.

(BTW, Wilbur, the wooly worm that won the festival races predicted a relatively cold winter with a good bit of snow.)

Don't be fooled by the cute little wooly worm mascot that appears on the nice long-sleeve t-shirts and the race materials. This is a tough mountain run that is probably absolutely beautiful when the runners get sunshine and warmer temperatures for the race and more challenging when cold weather and precipitation make the hilly trails slippery and muddy. It's a great little event with lots of good runners and a great festival behind it, and I hope I'll get to return to Avery County to run it again. But be warned -- this worm has teeth!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Jackson County - Smoky Streak 10k - October 3, 2009

Nope, contrary to the name, the Smoky Streak 5k/10k is not a nudist run. This morning, we were treated to the low-flying clouds and fog that give the Smoky Mountains and the Smoky Streak their names. The early-morning haze didn't last once the sun came up, but it provided a beautiful backdrop to the race setup and all of the pre-race festivities.

Our base of operations for the morning was the Webster Baptist Church in little Webster, North Carolina, a beautiful white wood "church in the valley" that hosted race headquarters. (I think we parked in the front yard of the parsonage.) A good crowd of volunteers -- and someone with a wonderful 80's music collection on their iPod -- got us all signed up, t-shirted, and ready to run. Despite the smallish nature of the race -- 79 finished the 10k and another 126 finished the 5k -- and the out-of-the-way location in the North Carolina mountains, this was actually the 11th annual running of the race, and you could tell the organizers had plenty of experience arranging the race setup area, coordinating with local law enforcement, and making sure we all had a good time.

The 10k is an out-and-back run from the church along the Tuckasegee River, and the riverside course was surprisingly flat for a mountain 10k. The 5k runners are shuttled by bus out to the turnaround point, and they start when the last 10k runner reaches the turnaround and heads for home, so all the runners run the last 5k of the 10k course together and all finish back at the church parking lot. That way everyone gets a big crowd at the finish to pull them all in, and hopefully the 5k leaders inspire the trailing 10k runners to keep it going.

Unfortunately for the 10k runners, the first half-mile or so of the race includes the only significant hill of the route, so it's a little punishing start to the race. But once we cleared that hill, and enjoyed the downhill on the other side, we were treated to some lovely views of the river and of the mountainsides as the sun came out and burned some of the fog away. It was still a little early for leaf-turning season, but even without the fall colors to come, the mountains were very beautiful. The Tuckasegee River is actually kind of scenic, and it provided some unusual juxtapositions of some very elegant, manicured estates and some more run-down, ramshackle homes. Lots of properties, though, had their own fishing docks built out over the river, and a few early-morning fishermen were surprised and entertained by all the runners going by in the early morning.

The 10k runners strung out pretty quickly, and it was a quiet first half of the race along the river to the mass of 5k runners waiting to start. The trail 10k runner was surprisingly a good bit behind me, so the 5k runners still had a good bit to wait after me before they got to start. The trip back along the river was still nice and peaceful, and I enjoyed some brief conversations with some of the other recreational runners. Still, though, as I passed the 4- and 5-mile marks, I kept wondering where the 5k runners were.

Finally, though, I reached the 6-mile mark at the top of the hill we started on, and at that point I was all about flying down the hill as fast as I could. The last quarter-mile stretched on for what seemed a while, but finally I was crossing the last street and powering past the finish line set up at the entrance to the church's parking lot. Turns out I was just ahead of the 5k leaders, and I had just enough time to catch my breath a little bit before watching the two top 5k runners battle each other to the line. (Officially, they had the same finish time in the results.) There was a bit of a discussion about potential jostling at the finish line, but the race director resolved it quickly.

Post-race, in the glorious mountain morning sunshine, there was plenty of food and drink for everyone and more music to enjoy. The overall and age-group winners all received nice medals, and the race t-shirts were designed to look like you're wearing a big race bib. It was a great morning for a race, and it was a beautiful route along the river. The Smoky Streak 10k was a great event, and I hope I'll get to return to Jackson County to run it again.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Alamance County - Mebane on the Move 10k - September 12, 2009

Chad had already beaten me to Alamance County with the Run at the Rock last December (and a triathlon earlier than that), and I finally made it there for the Mebane on the Move 10k. The Mebane on the Move races -- they have a 5k and a mile in addition to the 10k -- are part of a family fun festival sponsored by the Mebane Women's Club, and the Mebane Running Club has a hand in it, too. It was a nice surprise when I pulled in to see Raleigh friends Lesley, George, Kimberlie and David also in town for the race.

The Mebane on the Move 10k isn't a big race -- 129 finished the 10k with another 144 finishing the 5k -- but the volunteers really put themselves into it. Everyone on race morning was very upbeat and helpful, and some very excited folks got all the runners lined up behind the big arch and pumped up for the race. The start was a little bit uphill, but downtown Mebane was all dressed up with lots of American flags and spectators to welcome all the runners and cheer them on.

It was just about a perfect morning for running; the temps were almost cool to me, with a clear, sunny sky and a light breeze in the area. We got out of the downtown area fast, and soon we were out and about through some of the older Mebane neighborhoods with big shady trees overhanging the roads and some early-rising residents out watching the runners go by. There was a big change about the 2.5-mile mark, when we got out on a bigger road with little shade, dead into the early-morning sun. After that hot stretch, it was nice to get back into the shade again as we neared the start/finish area and the 5k turnoff.

Surprisingly, it was an area with a good amount of rolling hills. Normally you'd think of the Piedmont area as being flatter, but they did sneak some hills in there. Fortunately, none of them were too steep or severe, and the downhill stretches were much, much appreciated. The second half of the 10k course included more residential areas with shade and lots more volunteers. The volunteers and course monitors all around the route were very encouraging and very helpful to the runners, whether they were handing out cups of water, directing traffic or guiding runners. They kept us fired up all the way along the route!

Finally we came back by the start/finish area for the 10k finish, and I was very, very happy to see the finish line arch. More of those volunteers got our chips and gave us bottles of water, and they had a nice post-race spread of fruit, snacks and granola for the runners as well. The mile fun run started soon after, and lots of speedy kids and families took part together. Everybody seemed to enjoy the race; Kimberlie was the women's overall winner, and David, George, Lesley and I all were glad to get the mileage in. Even though I would have liked to have performed better, I appreciated all the Mebane volunteers and organizers getting us all on the Move this morning!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hertford County - North Carolina Watermelon Festival 5k - August 1, 2009

"Hi, welcome to the race! Here's your t-shirt! Help yourself to a watermelon!"

If you have a watermelon-styled purse, or shoes painted green and red with little seeds, or watermelons embroidered on your shirt, the place to be the first Saturday in August is the North Carolina Watermelon Festival in Murfreesboro, North Carolina. You'll have a great time with many other folks with the same decoration.

For runners, they have the North Carolina Watermelon Festival 5k. And if you pre-register, you get to take a watermelon home! They were all a little bigger than a rugby ball, and when I cut into mine later tonight, I hope it tastes as good as the watermelon slices they had for us at the end of the race!

The highlight of Saturday at the NC Watermelon Festival is the Watermelon Festival Parade, and the start of the 5k race leads off the parade. So well before the start of the race, folks were showing up to reserve a good seat along Main Street (see: Americana) for the start of the race and then the parade. Registration for the race and staging for the parade were all taking place at Murfreesboro Baptist Church, so after checking in for the race and collecting my free watermelon, I got to check out all the highlights of the parade setup.

Pre-race, I got to meet the mayor of Murfreesboro, Lynn Johnson, and also the reigning North Carolina Watermelon Festival Queen, Kensley Leonard. ("The queen meets the joker," I quipped.) The mayor was riding in a nice 1969 cherry-red Cadillac convertible while the watermelon queen had to ride on the watermelon float -- which was cute, but not as sweet a ride as the Caddy. Also present were the princesses of the watermelon court, Miss Teen Melon, the North Carolina Strawberry Queen, and the North Carolina Spot Queen. (The spot is a type of fish. Make up your own "fish queen" joke here.) There were high school bands warming up, clowns getting their makeup and costumes set for the kids, young drivers polishing up their rides for the spinning-rim club, firemen loading the fire engines with candy, and Shriners rehearsing their formations. (Why, oh why, isn't every parade in the land required to have six to eight Shriners in those little go-carts doing figure eights and formations all the way along the route?) Even without the race, it was going to be a festive morning.

Although the race didn't start until 10:00 a.m. in August, we were blessed with a very overcast sky that kept race-time temperatures in the high 70s when it could have been much, much warmer. With a bit of a breeze, even the humidity wasn't as bad as it could have been. The race organizers announced that 105 runners had registered, and that was the largest Watermelon Festival 5k field they ever had. Just before race time, Main Street was shut down, and the runners were called to the street -- then we were off!

Having the 5k lead off the parade guarantees that the runners get wall-to-wall spectators for the first half-mile or so before we turn off the parade route. Lots of folks were out to see the race start and the parade, so there was lots of yelling and encouragement for all the runners. For a small town, they managed to pull together a big crowd to see everything! Shortly we turned off the parade route and began working our way back to the west a block off Main Street. There was a very pleasant loop around the main quad of Chowan University, and another big loop to a small lake and back, which brought a surprising hill into play -- isn't this area supposed to be mostly flat? There were very enthusiastic volunteers directing the runners and managing the traffic all along the way -- not all of the roads could be shut down, and there were lots of cars still trying to get to the parade -- and a couple of water stations were set up at strategic points so that the runners could hit them twice. I really enjoyed the folks sitting on their porches waving at the runners, and there were some very cute "Go Runners" signs that some kids had made to decorate their front yard as the racers passed by.

The Watermelon Festival Parade is big enough that, even at my pace, units were still rolling out onto the parade route as I finished. The finish line was just a block back from the starting line, so we could watch the final parade units while we enjoyed our post-race treats (did I mention the wonderful watermelon slices they had for us at the finish?). Even without chips, they compiled the race results very quickly and got the awards distributed. The overall men's and women's winners had won the race three years in a row, and the men's winner, who lived in Murfreesboro just off the race course, set a new course record! I was very happy with a better-than-average performance myself and savored more than one slice of the sweet watermelons they had provided.

I had a great time in Murfreesboro for the North Carolina Watermelon Festival 5k, and I wouldn't mind coming back to this tiny corner of Hertford County to do this race again. It's a lot of fun at a very nice family festival, and the race organizers put on a very, very fun race. Now where's that watermelon I brought home?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Carteret County - Historic Beaufort 10k Road Race - July 18, 2009

The folks down in Carteret County have been running the Historic Beaufort Road Race 10k/5k for thirty years now, so it was a natural choice to include in the countdown. We were guaranteed a nice, flat course and we would only have to worry about the mid-July heat and humidity. Fire up the tour bus -- it's time for a summer trip to the coast!

The tour bus was actually pretty full this trip; after Chad and I made plans to make the trip to Beaufort, some other friends from the area also decided to do this mid-summer run. Chad's wife Koren, Chris, Laurel, Jim, Brandon, Jennifer, Romaine, Aaron, Rebecca, Esther and Mark all decided to come run, and it was a lot of fun to have that many folks from the Raleigh area all down at the coast for the weekend to run the race, eat some seafood, and enjoy the lovely view of the waterfront. (Chad's parents also came along to provide spectator support.)

We were unexpectedly blessed with lower-than-usual humidity, although the temps were very summer-like: right around 80 degrees at 7:00 a.m. in the morning. Fortunately, the constant breeze off the water helped out a good bit and kept the air from being too muggy. We arrived well in advance of the mile run, the first race of the day, and enjoyed checking in, meeting all the other Triangle runners, checking out the waterfront, and admiring the better-than-usual race t-shirts.

Chad and Koren jogged the mile run as a warmup, and then all of us took off for the 5k/10k run. The breeze was at our backs as we took off down the waterfront, and it seemed like no time had passed before we were already at the 5k turnaround. It really did feel like the majority of the runners were doing the 5k, because the crowd thinned out significantly as we got further out on the 10k course. (167 runners finished the 10k, and 371 runners finished the 5k; they said the total participation over all three races was 810, a new high for the event.)

After a couple of miles, the 10k runners moved a block inland and returned towards town, making a few turns in and out around blocks and beautiful old homes so that we got to see plenty of Beaufort, including the Ocean View cemetery. Fortunately for the runners, there were lots of enthusiastic volunteers directing us through all the turns, including lots of spirited Boy Scouts manning several water stations. One set of turns in the neighborhood allowed us to see runners ahead of us headed back towards the finish. Finally, we got to make those last few turns ourselves and turned back along the waterfront -- now into a strong headwind -- for the last three-quarters of a mile or so to the finish line.

Lots of spectators crowded around the finish to cheer all the 5k and 10k runners back, and some very nice volunteers handed each finisher a much-appreciated ice-cold towel to cool off. There was an ample supply of post-run food and drink for the runners as well. All of the Triangle contingent ran very well: Jim was the overall 10k winner, Brandon and Laurel won age-group awards in the 10k, and Esther was an age-group winner in the 5k. There were other winners announced from the Raleigh area, too, so we weren't the only out-of-towners who made the trip!

Everyone really enjoyed the Historic Beaufort Road Races, from fresh seafood the night before to the wonderfully flat race to more seafood for lunch afterwards, as well as extra time on the beach after the race! We may need a bigger bus to bring runners to Beaufort next year!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pender County - NC Blueberry Festival 5k Run - June 20, 2009

It's a weekend double-header! The flyer for the North Carolina Blueberry Festival 5k makes the point that it's the only 5k run/walk in Pender County, so it's like they were advertising to us to make sure we got there for the countdown!

North Carolina festivals are a great place to find out-of-the-way races -- Brad found that out at last year's Edenton Peanut Run -- and the NC Blueberry Festival followed that pattern! The cartoon mascot for the 5k was a big, round, runnin', sweatin' blueberry, and that's probably what I looked like in my blue NCRC race shirt.

The Blueberry Festival takes over the entire grounds of the Pender County Courthouse; they set up a big stage on one of the streets (the Marine band from a local base was setting up after the run, and some beach music groups were booked for later in the day) and arts/crafts vendors set up booths all over the place, with some spots reserved for local blueberry growers and your basic hot-dog-and-Coke vendors, too. Walking around the grounds before and after the race, I spotted blueberry tea, blueberry preserves, blueberry muffins, blueberry poundcake, blueberry jam, blueberry bread and blueberry candy.

The race itself was not a small affair; there were more than 350 finishers, including the racing team from The Athletes Foot here in Raleigh. (They took home at least a couple of overall awards and a handful of age-group awards.) The 5k course was an out-and-back with several branches through the Burgaw neighborhoods, which were very nice and filled with friendly residents. The Burgaw Fire Department also set up a water spray near the aid station; we passed them both twice as the course wound around.

As you might expect in extreme southeast North Carolina, the course was very, very flat, and as you might expect for June, it was very humid, although the 7:30 a.m. start time helped us avoid the biggest part of the heat. Unfortunately, I didn't learn anything from my previous run and went out too fast in the first mile again and faded in the second mile again. The runners were having a good time, though, so it was a fun crowd in which to just jog along. The volunteers at the aid station were very encouraging, and a squad from a local ROTC unit ran in the race and sang cadence the whole way around. One older woman walked the whole course pushing a walker with wheels. Just a great atmosphere for a race on a really pretty morning down near the coast.

I finally shuffled my way in and got to enjoy the post-race party. The volunteers gave out lots of cold bottled water and cups of fruit, including plenty of blueberries. The organizers were very organized and got the awards given out quickly after the course cutoff of sixty minutes. The overall winners received gift cards to a sporting goods store and the age group winners got Blueberry Festival bags; all of us got the cherished North Carolina Blueberry Festival 5k Run t-shirt with my lookalike mascot on the front. I had a great time a the Blueberry Festival 5k, both in the run and at the festival afterwards -- I even brought home a box of blueberries to do some cooking with! The only 5k in Pender County is a good one!

Davidson County - Tour de Kale 5k Night Run - June 19, 2009

Friday night runs are a big help when trying to work in new counties, so when Chad told me about his 2007 trip to the Tour de Kale 5k Night Run in the city of Denton in Davidson County, I knew it would help my tally, too. The Tour de Kale is mainly a cycling event that promotes fitness and benefits worthy causes, but they also hold a 5k run on Friday night to kick the whole weekend off. Instead of a large charity, the Tour de Kale annually benefits local citizens that are experiencing difficulty, and this year two Denton residents who are facing large medical expenses will benefit from the Tour.

I arrived at Harrison Park in Denton about an hour before the race and got to enjoy how they had set up the park with tents on the green for registration, pre- and post-race food, chip pickup and prizes. The park's bandstand was occupied by a local rock band that was entertaining the runners, walkers and spectators. Everybody was very friendly, and you could tell that the Tour is a big event in Denton and that everyone wanted to make sure all were welcome. The race organizer announced that, with an expected crowd of 190 entrants, the 2009 TDK would be the biggest field to date! An elementary school student sang the national anthem, a local preacher gave an invocation, and then we were off on the 5k!

The course itself was a very basic out-and-back route, with long gradual rises and downhills, but nothing severe either way. By the time we reached the half-mile mark, we were already out "past where the sidewalks end" and into farm country. Friendly volunteers staffed the mile markers and a very busy water station, but other than that the runners were on their own. It was a really hot, humid evening, even with the 8:00 p.m. race start, so we were all drenched before too long and looking for replacement fluids. The few residents we did see on the route seemed pleased to have the race coming right by their property, and they cheered us as we passed.

I went out way too fast on my first mile (9:20) and faded quickly in the second mile as the heat and humidity took their toll. By the time we passed the water station and the two-mile mark, I was just shuffling along enjoying the evening and the company of my fellow back-of-the-packers. Fortunately, the last half-mile was a gradual down-slope to the finish area, so that helped me pick up the pace a bit towards the end. The Denton fire department and EMS staff were out to cheer the finishing runners, and the spectators formed a loud, cheering chute for the runners to pass through to the ultimate finish line. More volunteers greeted us at the finish with very much appreciated cold bottles of water, and we all got a new pair of socks for finishing as well!

And where else would you be but central North Carolina to have Cheerwine at the finish? In addition to the Cheerwine, the post-race spread included slices of watermelon, fruit and bagels, and the very creative 5k cookies! (Delicious!) The TDK goodie bag included some Biofreeze samples, a sewing kit, a breast cancer ribbon pin, band-aids, a water bottle and cup, and, maybe specifically for Chad and me, the North Carolina highway map! The race t-shirt was also a lavender color that will be unique on my shelf. The band kept the crowd entertained through the last finishers and the compilation of the results, and then they gave out door prizes -- TDK shirts, towels and notebooks -- until they were ready to do the 5k awards, which were run medals for the age group winners and plaques for the overall winners.

They really put on a great 5k in Denton in the Tour de Kale, and I'm sure the weekend's bicycle race also benefited from their friendliness, attention to detail and spirited volunteers. Thanks for treating Chad and me so well at the TDK, and hopefully we'll be in Davidson County to run it again soon!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cumberland County - Fort Bragg Army Birthday 10-Miler - June 11, 2009

How many races start with the firing of a cannon and end with birthday cake? Not many, but one of them is down at Fort Bragg in Cumberland County, namely the 13th annual Army Birthday 10-Miler, which not only commemorates the birthday of the US Army but also selects the top 10 men and women who become part of the Fort Bragg team that trains for and races at the Army Ten Miler in October in Washington, DC.

This race takes some extra preparation with the 6:30 a.m. starting time and the need to wait in line to have your car inspected to get on the base, but it's well worth it to see 1,600+ servicemen and servicewomen (plus civilians) out to do 10 miles around Fort Bragg. (And at $10 to register, the race is a bargain!) There's lots of support from all kinds of Army units and volunteers to make sure that plenty of water and Gatorade are available -- plus misters on fire hydrants -- and to monitor intersections. Still, there are other units out doing their regular morning PT in packs and boots, not to mention one unit that was training in full uniform, packs, and arms. (The runners were happy to yield right-of-way to the guys with machine guns.) You also couldn't miss the cadence recordings and the Army men's chorus songs being played on loudspeakers around the race course.

Sure enough, they fired a cannon to get the whole race started, and we were off on a very quick pace. Not surprisingly, the soldiers are in better shape than your average road race field, so I was solidly in the back of the pack. Lots of family members and friends were out to support the runners, and they were happy to cheer for any of us, which was very much appreciated. The course turned out to have some challenging sections, with some significant hills, but fortunately we had the cool of the morning to enjoy, before the sun got too high or too hot. My favorite aid station was in an assembly area where soldiers getting organized for morning PT were volunteering before their own workouts; they were very encouraging and supportive of all the runners as we came through, but they were having lots of fun with the runners, too. (Army sense of humor: turning the 9-mile mark sign upside down so it looked like you had only gone 6 miles.)

The last stretch coming home was on a mile-long straightaway (with hills) where you could see the finish line arch way ahead. Lots of folks were at the finish line to cheer in all the finishers, and then there was a very nice post-race party at Sports USA (sort of an officers' club). There were lots of food and drink, and some very good over-strong Gatorade. The awards for the run were excellent. The winning teams (active-duty) received huge silver cups and trophies, plus all team members received gold, silver or bronze medals. And the age-group winners received very nice plaques with bas-relief sculptures of soldiers and helicopters. Really nice awards -- wish I could have earned one! And yes, they had a huge birthday cake with the Fort Bragg logo and the race logo that was sliced up with a sword by the base commander and some of the race winners. Happy 234th birthday, Army! Hooah!

I had a great time on Fort Bragg that Thursday morning doing the Army Birthday 10-Miler. 1,622 runners finished after 1,858 registered. If the team competition was open to civilians, we’d have to take the NCRC racing team down to compete! Before the race, I was Tired; when I was done, I was Army Tired!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

And you thought we were obsessive...

You thought it was strange for us to try to run a race in every North Carolina county? Here's a guy with a county-collecting blog dedicated to his efforts to visit every county of every state in the country! This post documents his visit in February to Stokes County, the last of North Carolina's 100 counties he visited. Stokes County was the 2,898th county he had visited, out of 3,141 counties (or county equivalents) nationwide.

I don't think we'll be trying to run in all the counties in the country, though.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hoke County - Hoke 5k All-American Trail Run - March 21, 2009

Was that the starter's pistol? Nope, just an artillery shell.

Hoke County, Fort Bragg and the Regional Land Use Advisory Commission opened the All-American Trail in April 2007. The trail parallels the border of Fort Bragg for about eleven miles, with both flat stretches and some surprising hills. The trail includes periodic signage highlighting the local flora and fauna, but there are also warnings not to stray off the trail. With the sounds of artillery shells going off in the distance, there was no temptation to go wandering, however.

The Hoke 5k All-American Trail Run helps promote the trail and the Healthy Hoke Task Force, an effort to help make Hoke County families healthier. In addition to the 5k, there was a sizeable contingent of walkers taking part as well. Although it's not a big race, the All-American Trail is a great location for the event, and it had a lot of nice touches that made it very enjoyable.

Race morning was a little cooler than the previous week, with temperatures in the high 30's and low 40's, but with clear skies and bright sunshine. Registering and checking in was a snap, and all the volunteers were happy and very welcoming to the runners and walkers. Getting lined up with a small field was no problem, and we were away!

The AAT has an excellent running surface. It's mostly sand and clay, and the recent rains had left parts of the trail rutty and muddy. Although there are pine trees on both sides of the trail, they are not so dense that you can't see the fields and woods in the distance on either side. The few streams that the trail crosses have been bridged with standard wood bridges, and there are mile markers all along so that you can track your distance. For our race, a 1.5-mile stretch had been identified for us to do an out-and-back 5k.

The small running field spread out in a hurry, but since the trail is mostly straight we had a good view both ahead and behind. With the out-and-back configuration it was easy to see the field at the turn-around, and we had plenty of chances to encourage each other and the walkers that were trailing behind all the runners. Two aid stations kept us all hydrated, and after the quick jog we were all back at the start/finish area. At the finish I thought that someone was playing some nice bluegrass on a speaker system, but then I passed a trail sign and discovered it was actually two musicians playing a banjo and fiddle. Live bluegrass at a race -- how cool is that!

After all the runners and walkers had completed the course, all the awards, including door prizes were handed out. It was a nice surprise to win my age group and receive a nice certificate, a canteen and a gift certificate! The t-shirts were good, and there was plenty of food and drink for everyone afterwards. All in all, a very enjoyable morning and a very good race. It's definitely worth going back to see some more of the All-American Trail.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Robeson County - Rumba on the Lumber 5k - March 7, 2009

The Rumba on the Lumber 5k in Lumberton, NC of Robeson County advertises in a lot of local publications, so when there was an opportunity to go take part and collect another county, it was easy to take the 90-minute hop down to the NC/SC border. In contrast to some of the first-thing-in-the-morning races, the Robeson Road Runners start the Rumba at 11:00 a.m., plenty of time to arrive, check out the event, run, and have a good time post-race.

The 5k and the huge Family Fun Mile are the central morning events of the Rumba on the Lumber Festival, which includes a chili cook-off, craft fair, kids' area, local food vendors, live music and a whole lot of fun. This helps the 5k, in the words of RRR president Wendell Staton, "mushroom" over the last few years. And the Family Fun Mile really is huge, numbering near 1,000 folks in all -- there were walkers still going off in waves from the starting line even as the speedy folks were coming to the finish line.

Large numbers of entrants and spectators also blessed the 5k, which benefited from a beautiful March morning, with temperatures pushing into the high 70s and low 80s. The course was wonderfully flat, started in downtown Lumberton (right in front of the county courthouse), wound out through some of the adjacent neighborhoods, and turned onto a mile-long straightaway that finished back downtown on the opposite side of the courthouse. The course was packed with interested spectators, many of which were greeting the runners by name as they passed by -- it was like most of Lumberton were either watching the race or running in it. And we were also blessed with some very exuberant volunteers and course monitors, all of whom brought their own boom boxes or opened their car doors to blast tunes for the runners, from Jimmy Buffet to blues to praise music. It was a hot run late in the morning, but overall a lot of fun to run.

Post-race, the festival was really in full swing. UNC-Pembroke, which provided some of the course volunteers, had a nice display for finisher pictures, including the UNC-P mascot. The chili cook-off opened during the 5k, and all the 5k runners were allowed in free. Probably twenty or more groups were giving out samples of their chili recipes, with all kinds of creative themes and get-ups. A really good cover band was entertaining the crowd, and the adults in the chili cook-off received free beers, too. Hard to complain about a race that features all that!

I can see why the Rumba on the Lumber 5k has such a good reputation and why it turns out a great crowd each year. Plus, it was nice to see fellow NCRCers there, including Tim Karnatz, Val Price and Gary Moss. Hopefully I'll be back for another Rumba in the future!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Swain County - Tsali Frosty Foot Fest 8k - January 3, 2009

Hello, Tsali! Well, helloooooo -- Tsali! Yep, we're only a few days into a New Year, and we're already knocking off a new county by traveling up to Swain County, to the Tsali Recreation Area of the Nantahala National Forest for the Tsali Frosty Foot Fest 8k/25k/50k Trail Runs.

This is an inaugural race sponsored by VO2 Sports North Carolina and benefitting the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation -- the mother of race director Dave Forkner is a breast-cancer survivor herself. Dave, the owner of VO2, said that the Tsali Recreation Area had hosted bike rides and adventure races, but never a trail race. That's a shame, because this is very pretty area up in the mountains, with lots of spectacular views of Fontana Lake. (Unfortunately, the lake has really suffered in the western North Carolina drought; you can tell from the shoreline how far down the water has receded.)

Fortunately, the tour bus was able to navigate all the twisty mountain roads to the start area, where lots of volunteers were checking in "Pre-Registered Folks" and "Race-Day Folks". They announced that registrations had passed the 230-person mark across all three race distances, which made for a much bigger turnout than had been expected. Dave also was able to land some elite long-distance runners to the race, including Mark and Anne Lundblad of Swannanoa, North Carolina. The organizers made good use of the area around the start/finish line and started all the runners off down the road to the trail entrance about a quarter-mile away. That presented the only problem with the expanded field, as all the runners had to negotiate a one-at-a-time entrance onto the single-track portion of the trail. There was some good-natured joking, but no real problems as all the runners eventually merged into a single-file line going down the trail.

Dave and his group of enthusiastic volunteers may have been hoping for a real "frosty" experience, but unfortunately the precipitation the day before was all rain, so we were in for more of a "muddy buddy" experience. Lots of the course was sloppy with mud, with large puddles you had to go straight through and slipperly slopes both uphill and downhill. But given the 36-degree temperatures and the overcast sky, you really couldn't ask for better running conditions otherwise.

The trail delivered on all the promises that had been made about challenges and scenery. We had to duck under one fallen tree and negotiate through some big fallen branches in another spot. There were very severe uphills and downhills in the third and fourth miles, with just enough mud on them to make you slide back a couple of inches for every stride forward. A few runners took spills on the slopes, but most of the experienced trail runners chalked that up to the nature of the race. The single-track was less rooty and rocky than the single-track we've run locally, but the mud and the much more severe hills kept you focused on where you were going. Occasionally, though, we were rewarded with some very pretty vistas, both of the lake below and the line of runners hugging the side of the slope above or below us. And the race crew did a great job of hauling supplies for aid stations into the woods so that we could thankfully have some water on occasion.

Fortunately, we were done after the 8k distance, but the 25k and 50k runners continued on all through the day as the various Tsali trail loops snaked their way along the lakeshore and up to the "infamous Fontana Lake overlook" where the longer-distance runners were blessed with additional panoramas. At the finish, though, we were welcomed with plenty of water and sports drink, organic veggie chili, hot chocolate, cookies and all the mud we wanted. There was plenty of good music on someone's MP3 player, and they made very nice t-shirts for the race.

We had not been on the Tsali trails before, but they were lots of fun in this inaugural race. Dave's team put on a wonderful event, and this should continue to be a successful set of races for many years to come. Tsali, please don't go away again!