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.