"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.