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!