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.