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!