Monday, December 19, 2011

2011 Year in Review

Well, it looks like we've exhausted all of our new-county opportunities for the remainder of this year, so it's time to take a look back at all of the new races and new faces we got to see over the last twelve months:

Chad's new counties in 2011 (8): Lenoir, Scotland, Ashe, Catawba, Haywood, Burke, Richmond, Craven
Brad's new counties in 2011 (12): Lenoir, Scotland, Union, Wilkes, Warren, Graham, Haywood, Burke, Johnston, Franklin, Martin, Pitt

Chad's total counties: 38
Brad's total counties: 54
Combined total counties: 65

Once again we've covered the state from end-to-end, from Ashe County and Graham County along the western frontier to Martin County and Pitt County along the sound to Scotland County along the southern border. We've had a really good time and have been blessed with good health and good travels along the way. We've met some really nice folks and run with some talented runners. We've been fortunate to have been joined by friends and family along the way, and it's been fun convincing them that we really are trying to cover the whole state by running in different counties. And it's been a very nice surprise to have some counties which previously did not host a race decide to add them in the continuing effort to spur children (and adults) to get interested in being active and exercising; that's been a great boost to our efforts both this year and in the look ahead to 2012.

We met a very enthusiastic nature center host (and a bear) in Lenoir County. Chad got frisked by the sheriff in Scotland County. Brad danced with a cow, a stormtrooper, and Michael Jackson in Union County. And we had an excellent run with friends at the return of a moonlight running classic in Haywood County.

We passed the 60-county mark last August and tacked on five more new counties before the end of the year, and hopefully another good year in 2012 will take us at least past the 75% mark, if not further. Thanks for all the patience and support from our families, and keep those cards and letters coming in! Hopefully soon you can see the Chad-and-Brad tour bus coming through your part of the state in 2012! Keep on runnin'!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Pitt County - Reindeer Dash for Cash 10-Miler - December 4, 2011

It was great to have running friends Gary and Rachel along for the trip that's likely to be the final new county of the year, Pitt County, as we prepped for the 7th annual Reindeer Dash for Cash 10-Miler in Greenville. There are 10-mile and 5k events in the Reindeer Dash for Cash, which is held annually in Greenville in memory of Captain Christopher S. Cash, a soldier from the area who loved Greenville and loved to run. Proceeds from the race benefit the Capt. Christopher Cash Memorial Foundation of NC, Inc., which awards annual scholarships in the memory of Capt. Cash. This is one of the biggest events in Pitt County, with over 800 participants in 2010 and more than 1,000 expected this year.

We were blessed with one of those wonderful-weather days in North Carolina, where December temperatures can reach into the high 60s. Shorts and tech shirts were plenty warm, as the sun beat down on us from an almost cloud-free sky. One of the most-frequently-heard topics of pre-race discussions was how much better this weather was than the previous year, when it was much colder and wetter. The race organizers mentioned during the pre-race announcements that it was the best weather they had ever had for the race, and Gary and Rachel, who had taken part in the 5k in previous years, agreed.

Everything was hopping in the building where packet pickup and race-day registration was taking place. The excellent weather was contributing to more walk-up registrations, and lots of people were milling about, waiting on restrooms, and coming and going from the park behind the building that faced the Tar River. Even with the warm weather, there were lots of folks wearing Christmas-themed costumes, from ladies with candy-cane-striped socks to lots of Santa and Rudolph hats to one sugar plum fairy, and even one guy running the 10-miler in a full, head-to-toe brown fur reindeer outfit. The announcements began ushering everyone out to the road where the start would take place, and the ECU Club Dance team performed for everyone and we got to hear from one of the Capt. Cash Scholarship recipients before we had a false start on the national anthem (all the runners joined in to finish it).

Right after that, we were off! Both running events started together, so there was lots of activity and jockeying for position as we climbed the little hill alongside the park. They did make an effort to get the runners to seed themselves with faster runners along the front, but even from my spot safe in the back of the pack, I had to do a lot of dodging as the folks in front of me broke out into walks or very slow jogs. A quick left turn and we were going right down one of the main streets of downtown Greenville, and we could do some quick window-shopping in the stores, many of which were already decorated for the holidays. Plenty of law enforcement from Greenville and Pitt County, along with some MPs recruited from Capt. Cash's regiment, were handling traffic control and keeping the runners safe. Another couple of turns and we were entering the ECU campus, where we got to view some of the administration buildings and maybe some of the dorms and fraternity or sorority houses. Lots of spectators were alongside the roads in the early miles, and it sounded like the majority of runners were definitely there for the 5k event. In keeping with the Reindeer theme, each mile marker (nine in all) had the name of a different reindeer on it, so that the 10-milers got to see hear all the names and keep that "Rudolph" song in our heads. We went through a few more neighborhoods in the campus area -- all the roads were nice and mercifully flat -- and quickly we were back in the start area, and the 5k runners were diverted onto a new road where they would re-enter the park and finish. The 10-milers, though, had to keep on going up the start hill again and off into the distance.

The remainder of the 10-miler was an out-and-back through what was mainly industrial areas of Greenville. We did pass close by the G-ville airport and had a quick view of a lake in a municipal office area, but in general it wasn't as scenic or interested (or spectator-populated) as the 5k route. Since it was mostly out-and-back, we did get a good view of the leaders as they headed back for the start area, and I was happy to see my friend Tim holding third place and Rachel running strong also. (Gary was running the 5k and turned out to finish fifth overall and first in his age group.) The volunteers manning the aid stations were very friendly and encouraging to all the runners, and the MPs at the intersections cheered a hearty "Hooah" for all of us, too. Some soldiers had left early doing the full 10-mile event in full uniform and pack, and we got to encourage those guys along as well. The return trip after the turnaround was mostly into the sun, and although I was very happy with the sunny, warm weather, I was really wanting to find some shade to run in and get a break from having the sun right in my face.

Finally we crossed back over the Tar River and got to go down the parkside hill for a change. Lots of runners who had finished the 5k and 10-miler earlier came out to cheer the slower runners, and finally we got diverted onto the same side street we had passed near the 5k finish. This road took us onto the back side of a wonderful pedestrian bridge that served as the start of the local greenway system and made a great finishing landmark for the races. It was decorated with flags and balloons, and you couldn't help but put on a final sprint as you dashed across the bridge to the finish line.

I knew I had been running very consistent and very fast miles with walk breaks only at the aid stations, and I knew my pace was going to have PR potential, but I was really tiring fast in the last mile, and even though I had fourteen minutes to finish that mile with a PR, I really wanted a walk break and the finish line! Fortunately my Garmin and the finish clock confirmed that I had done the 10-miler in 1:42:28, which was an improvement of more than 2.5 minutes since my PR at the Scotland County Foundation FUNd Run back in April. (Any more new counties have ten milers? They seem to agree with me!) So I was very happy overall with the race and how I had felt through most of it.

My other running friends did very well, too. Tim held on to finish third overall (second male), Gary won his age group, and Rachel had a new 10-mile PR as well. The post-race food and drink was excellent, with subs, donuts, pizza and G2, and there were lots of sponsor and race organizer booths ready to help you with anything you needed. The 10-mile finishers got dog-tag finisher medals, but Gary's age-group winner medal was the best one there! The race shirts were long-sleeved cotton and very comfy with a nice design, too. Overall, we really had a great time in Greenville at the Reindeer Dash for Cash. It's a wonderful event benefiting a really good foundation, and when you have weather like this in Decemeber, it's well worth the short ride out to Pitt County! You might even have a PR! Thanks for a great event!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Martin County - Martin County 5k Turkey Trot - November 19, 2011

For a while I was really concerned about whether we were going to be able to find a running event in Martin County, one of the "tough seven" counties to include in the countdown because of the lack of running events in the area. However, with building concerns about health and obesity, and because of some demonstrated economic development benefits, some locations are getting more interested in bringing running and walking events to their residents, and that's what happened in Martin County.

The Martin County 5k Turkey Trot is a new event that was organized by the Martin County Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with Martin Community College and several other sponsors. The organizers mentioned they would really like to get more people to take part in the future, so hopefully their desire to make it an annual event will be fulfilled. However, they do need to get some assistance and expertise on their team to iron out some of the rough patches they experienced in their inaugural run.

Race morning was nice and clear and cool as we arrived on the Martin Community College in the morning, but with the race time scheduled for after 9:30 a.m., I knew we would have some time for the sun to break through the morning chill. And exactly what time was the race, anyway? The online registration form I had been using as my guide and the event management website where I registered said 9:30 a.m. But it was just after 9:00 a.m. when they called all the 5k runners over to the starting line for a course review and then started us off! Good thing I got there early and didn't go out for a warm-up run, or I would have missed the race!

Anyway, there were a good number of runners and walkers out for the event, which also included a 1-mile family fun walk (which was scheduled for 9:00 a.m. but started about 8:30 a.m. instead). There was lots of talk among the runners about race reviews for the Outer Banks Marathon and Half-Marathon which had taken place the previous weekend (glad to hear I wasn't the only one done in by the bridge at mile 10) and about a few upcoming races in Greenville, including the Dash for Cash 10-Miler in December. It is a very nice thing we've learned in the countdown that runners all over the state are very friendly and love to talk about running, the races they've done, and what they have planned, and the runners we met in Martin County were no different.

The Riverside High School band (home of the Knights) pepped up the crowd before the events and played the national anthem before the start of the 1-mile walk -- and then scattered! Yep, it was cold, but maybe they could have played something for the 5k start. Two wonderful ladies handled packet pickup -- with only 49 finishers they weren't overwhelmed with registrations -- and it turned out shirts were only ordered for the handful of folks who had pre-registered before the start of November, so the 1st annual Martin County 5k Turkey Trot shirt may turn out to be one of the more collectible ones due to its scarcity!

Once we got started running, the chill in the air didn't feel so bad. We made a quick loop around the main building of MCC and then headed out onto Kehukee Park Road. A bunch of horses in an adjoining pasture watched us and actually came on up to the corner as if they were intrigued by the two-footed racers that were in their area. We ran Kehukee Park Road from end to end and back, with deputies from the Martin County Sheriff's Office handling traffic control at each end (come on, guy, you can at least get out of the patrol car so the runners can thank you for your efforts without having to talk through your rolled-up window). The course was marvelously flat and the temps were still cool, so it was very, very nice running weather.

One the route back to Martin Community College, we detoured off Kehukee Park Road (actually, I just like saying, "Kehukee") and made a loop around the MCC horse arena. MCC must have a good equine program, because there is a large set of buildings around the arena dedicated to horses and their health and activity. The loop around the horse arena went by quick, and then we passed the 2-mile mark, with me still running pretty well and feeling good.

Back through the MCC parking lot we went -- and to the finish line? That seemed like an awfully quick last mile, and it wasn't even that. It will look in the records like I ran my first sub-20:00 5k in decades, but the course was very short -- we only ran about 2.2 miles in this 5k, according to my Garmin. Subsequent inspection of the map indicated that the course was probably going to be short anyway -- the finish line was right at the 3-mile sign -- but it appears that course monitors also directed us to the finish line too quickly, leaving out an intended 0ut-and-back to another adjoining road (eyeballing it still didn't look like it would have been enough to make a full 5k).

Still, though, everyone seemed to be having a good time, and while the runners stood around joking about all their new PRs (the winner clocked a sub-14:00 finish time), the joggers and walkers continued to finish to celebrations for getting out and being active, so I guess for its purpose, the event was still a success. Run the East was the race management company for this event, and they probably should have recognized the times were too fast, but RtE had a bunch of events that morning and Martin County probably didn't get the A-team. The folks putting on the race didn't appear to be very familiar with running events, and they may not have even known they had a short-course situation (they didn't mention it in the post-race comments and awards). Some of the local runners talked hopefully about the idea of moving the race to downtown Williamston in future years to take advantage of the historic area and more open areas, but I enjoyed seeing the horse farms and country roads this morning. There was a post-race spread of bottled water and bananas (but no trash cans?) and medallions for the overall and age-group winners. Unfortunately, with age-group spreads like 18-39 and 40-64, there were too many runners in each group to allow real age-group racing.

It was a lovely morning in Martin County for their inaugural Turkey Trot 5k, and I hope they will be able to bring out more runners and correct some of the problems they experienced in their first event. It is a lovely area, and with the flat elevations in this part of "down east" North Carolina, they should have the base to build up a great event in future years!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Franklin County - Grace Haven Baptist 5k Rock-n-Run - October 29, 2011

Well, we had a nice string of races with really nice weather, so I guess it was about time we got one that was colder and rainy. Actually, the nice folks at the 4th annual Grace Haven Baptist 5k Rock-n-Run told me that they've experienced cold and rain a couple of years in a row, so we probably should have expected that when we made the quick jump over the line to Franklinton in Franklin County.

Since Chad and I are both church-goers, it's nice when we can find a church-sponsored race with a good beneficiary and get a new county at the same time. The folks at Grace Haven Baptist in Franklinton established the 5k Rock-n-Run as a benefit for Safe Space, an organization working to prevent and end domestic violence. One organizer told me after the race that over the short life of the event, they had raised several thousand dollars toward this mission. With some more publicity about this race and the adjoining Fall Festival -- arts and crafts also put on by the church -- they should be able to increase their contributions even more.

Race check-in and the finish line were at the Grace Haven Baptist property outside of town, where they have built a very nice outdoor shelter with a big fireplace, restrooms and meeting area. The fireplace is a huge stone hearth that was roaring on race morning and became a very popular gathering place both before and after the race for all the runners looking to avoid the 40-degree morning temperatures. It was also interesting to look through all the arts-and-crafts booths being set up -- I was especially checking out the warm-looking quilts -- for the Fall Festival later that day. Finally they began shuttling the runners out to the starting line in several volunteers' vans.

The starting line was back in Franklinton at the Grace Haven Baptist Church itself, across from Franklinton High School. On the shuttle, the helpful volunteer pointed out the mile markers, the turns, and the volunteers that would be helping us know where to turn. At the church, to keep us out of the cold and rain, they had the pre-race announcements and a prayer inside the building where it was still nice and warm. And we got a nice surprise when we walked out for the race start that the rain had pretty much stopped! Just after they synched up with the finish line timer on the phone, they lined us up and sent us off.

As our shuttle driver had promised, the first couple of miles of the race were blessedly flat. They had made a few changes in the course from the previous year to hopefully give the runners a faster route to cover. There was a brief rise at about the 1-mile mark, but it was so gradual and not very different from the surrounding landscape, so it didn't really present much of an obstacle to the fast pace. The volunteers were very nice to point out the turns for us -- "a bunch of left turns, just like NASCAR," as the starter had joked -- and the pace was very quick as we took advantage of the level ground. The roads were not closed or tightly controlled for the race, so we had to watch out for the occasional car in the area, like the vehicles who turned onto the starting area just after the runners took off. But all intersections were monitored, either by race volunteers, Franklinton police officers, or Franklin County deputies. So we were pretty well taken care of, including a very welcome aid station about halfway into the race, at Franklinton Elementary School.

By the time we hit the 2-mile mark, we were definitely outside the main Franklinton area and back in the country. I could still see some the runners ahead of me, and that kept me pushing it along the way, hoping I could pass one or two before we finished (I didn't). We passed by the Triple R Horse Ranch, where there were some great big horses just standing around in the mist watching those poor humans who were out there having to do the running on this morning. With the pasture lands and a lake in the background, it was a very quiet, pristine scene -- just right for a quiet autumn Saturday morning in the North Carolina countryside.

For the runners, though, we had just about a mile left to go, and fortunately for us, it was pretty much downhill all the way. The grade increased a little bit, so we felt like picking the pace up a little bit, and the country road was straight enough that you could see runners ahead of you, and you could also get inspiration from being able to see the finish line turn well ahead of reaching it. I had been running what seemed like a good pace all the way, and I'm sure I picked it up some for the downhill as well, but I wasn't watching my Garmin all that closely. There was a brief rise as we approached the final turn, and then we were on a gravel road entering the church property headed towards the big shelter. We could see the timing tent ahead, and there were plenty of volunteers cheering us in, so I'm sure all the runners made a last burst for the finish line. After a small turn, we entered the finish chute and checked out the clock display -- and I was very pleasantly surprised to discover I had run my first sub-28:00 5k in many, many years! Maybe cold and rainy weather is good for me! (or maybe I just wanted to get out of the cold and back to the fireplace!)

Post-race, the volunteers had put together some fruit and granola snacks for the runners, plus some very welcome hot chocolate and coffee to take the chill off. Plus, they had the big fireplace burning even hotter to help us warm back up. Several of the runners, including many teens from the church youth group, mingled around to compare notes on the run, gauge who the age-group winners would be (not me), and compliment the fireplace. The event had drawn in some walkers from the church as well, so there was plenty of time to hang out while the organizers waited for everyone to finish the course and arrive back at the main shelter for awards.

I was very pleased with my sub-28:00 5k. I knew it had been more than a decade since I had pulled off a race like that, and I was surprised because it just came out of the blue, with no expectations or specialized training. I'm sure I was helped along by the cool weather to keep me from getting overheated and the downhill stretches of the last mile. But it really made me glad to have gotten out and gotten to a new, neighboring county on a morning when it would have been easy to stay indoors where it was nice and warm and dry. The Grace Haven Baptist 5k Rock-n-Run was a great little event, and hopefully more runners will venture out to Franklin County to experience their hospitality and fast little course themselves!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Johnston County - Selma Railroad Run 5k - October 1, 2011

The town of Selma in Johnston County has a lot of heritage tied to the railroads, going back to its earliest days when lots were sold around a new station of the North Carolina Railroad. For the last 36 years, Selma has celebrated that railroad heritage with Selma Railroad Days, a fall weekend celebration with entertainment, food, arts and crafts -- and for the last 34 years, one of the area's longest-running 5k races, the Selma Railroad Run!

Chad beat me to Johnston County when he ran the Law Enforcement Torch Run 5k for Special Olympics a few years ago, but I was determined to get there on my own just for the Railroad Run. Because it's so close to home here in Raleigh, many of our running friends, including several elite-level runners (read Joey's report on the 2010 race), love the Railroad Run because the course is about as flat as it gets in the area, so it's a great course to hunt for a PR or to go all-out. Finally this year I was able to make the quick jump down highway 70 into Selma.

And I wasn't alone, either: lots of the Raleigh running elite had also made the trip out for the Railroad Run. David and Kimberlie were there, Gary and Rachel were there, Tom and Brandon and Jarett and Pauline and Rebekah and Zeph were all there! I joked that next year we should just rent the NCRC party bus and stock it up with Gatorade and Clif Bars to bring everyone down for the event.

Race morning itself was wonderfully clear and cool, another indication that this was likely to be a very fast race. Surprisingly, despite the longevity and good reputation of the race, it's usually a smaller-size race, and this year was no different, with only 127 finishers. Still, that made registration and packet pickup a breeze, plus the restroom and food lines were shorter. It was fun to see all the Raleigh elite runners arriving, stretching and warming up; you knew they were here to compete and that it was going to be a very fast morning indeed. The little bit of the course I got to jog in advance of the start confirmed everything I had heard about how flat the course is.

The race organizers ushered us out into the road and ran through a quick set of announcements and instructions. The law enforcement for Selma was out to keep the runners safe on the road as well. When the race started, all of the speedsters up front took off, and a very fast race was underway. Most of the course was out-and-back along a very level and very straight North Webb Street, but to bring the race up to the correct distance, we also did a quick loop through a neighborhood adjacent to Webb. Several of the folks along Webb and in the neighborhood were aware of the race -- it has been around for 34 years -- and were out to watch the runners come by and cheer them on. Other folks and drivers appeared to be surprised by the event but were looking on with interest.

From my spot safe in the back of the pack, I had a good view of a lot of the race as it played out. Since most of the course was out-and-back, as the leaders were headed back into Selma, I got a good measure of how big a lead Brandon and Kimberlie had (which they held through the finish), and it looked like Gary had a good hold on our age-group win (he did). It was very impressive and inspirational watching these elite runners focused on their performance and form, and it hearkened me back to the olden days when I might have actually been able to run with them for a short distance.

Friendly volunteers gave us water at the aid station, and I got a bit inspired myself when I was able to read the finish line timer displaying a time of 28 minutes and change. I hustled over the last stretch as best I could -- a woman runner and I had been exchanging encouragement over the last mile -- and burst across the finish line in 29:18, easily my fastest 5k of the year and probably one of my better ones over the last few years. I guess the hype about the flat, fast course is true!

There was a good spread of post-race food and fluids for the runners, and they were able to give out the overall awards pretty quickly, although a timing snafu prevented them from doing the age-group awards right away. But I enjoyed the time catching up with the other runners, hearing about their training and performance, and planning for that party bus next year! I really enjoyed the Selma Railroad Run 5k, and it's definitely one to include if you're looking for a fast course!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

62! Bonus!

Chad and I were talking about going to the city of Hamlet in Richmond County in October to run in the Seaboard Festival 5-Miler, when Chad mentioned, memories from olden days returning to his head, "I actually ran that race a few years ago." Bonus! Since he's already run a race in Richmond County, we added that to the countdown, and that brings our county total to 62!

Of course, the Seaboard Festival, a celebration of Hamlet's heritage in the railroad industry, has been around for many years and has a great reputation, and I wouldn't be surprised if we put in an appearance there in the future. But it was a great surprise and bonus to discover we could take another county off the board!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Burke County - The Sunrise Run 10k on the Greenway - September 10, 2011

It was an absolutely beautiful morning in the foothills of the mountains when the tour bus pulled into Catawba Meadows Park in Morganton, North Carolina for the Sunrise Run 10k and 5k events hosted by the local Table Rock Runners. Our good friend John Tate, who's a Morganton native, had run the Sunrise Run 10k for several years and recommended it to us as an excellent race, so we knew it had to be a part of the countdown. Unfortunately, John was training for an upcoming marathon and couldn't come with us to do the Sunrise Run this year.

Both Sunrise Run events are staged on the Catawba River greenway, which is a very nice corridor connecting several parks and trails on the northwest side of downtown Morganton. The whole greenway stretches 4.5 miles from end to end, with Catawba Meadows Park located close to the middle of its length. The 5k event turned north onto the greenway for an out-and-back route; the 10k event turned south for a longer out-and-back, followed by the 5k out-and-back to make the full distance.

Catawba Meadows Park has several big and airy picnic shelters that were serving as packet pickup and registration locations on race morning. Chad and I had no trouble picking up our materials, which included a nice black tech shirt with the race logo on the front. (Shirts from previous years were on sale, demonstrating that they have put thought and effort into making nice-looking shirts for several years.) We were able to get a little pre-race nourishment and scout around for some "atmosphere" photos, as well as marvel at the large turnout for the races.

The turnout was chiefly for the 1-mile kids' run event; the sponsors had partnered with many of the local schools to encourage the kids to train to run a mile with their parents and friends, and these efforts very clearly paid off as there were more finishers in the 1-mile run (153) than in either of the "big" races (131 in the 5k and 56 in the 10k). Seeing all the kids out there to run the mile was very uplifting, and I hope some of the kids will catch the running bug and be active and healthy for their whole lives.

The 5k and 10k races started together in the approach drive to Catawba Meadows Park; when we finally got the starting horn after a bit of a delay -- Chad said they would be having the "sunset run" if they didn't get started soon -- we weaved back and forth through a couple of parking areas to get the requisite distance, and then we made our way onto the greenway and out our respective routes. It was just about a perfect morning to be running; the air in the valley was nice and cool and fresh, the view of the mountains off in the distance was very inspirational, and there was just enough breeze and shade to keep the runners from getting too hot. The first part of the 10k route through the open park allowed us to see way ahead of us, where the leaders were stretching out the lead and winding along the paved greenway. Then the park gave way to the shady riverside miles and we had less opportunity to see what was going on up ahead.

Along the riverside we realized what a nice greenway Morganton has. The greenway is only 6 or 7 years old, so the pavement is still very smooth and even, without major root interruptions or washed-out areas. The bridges are nice and roomy, and when the greenway changes to boardwalk for the elevated areas, the walk adjoins gazebos, observation decks, walkways down to the riverside, and piers where you can fish or just watch the water (and runners) go by. There was even one area where the kudzu had grown along a powerline that stretched over the greenway, creating a "kudzu kavern" kind of effect.

When the greenway passed underneath Green Street and became boardwalk, we were very surprised to discover River Village, a commercial area where several small businesses backed up to the greenway with their entrances and windows facing out on the river and the runners. (One bike rental shop had a perfect spot.) This was a neat feature and one that we had not seen on other greenway runs. In the Village was even a restaurant that backed up to the greenway, with its own patio seating area overlooking the river that would have made an excellent runner-viewing spot.

Once we were back on the paved greenway, we had a little further to go on our out-and-back. We crossed a very nice pedestrian bridge that was designed to give a little bounce as walkers and runners passed over it, and then we were in Freedom Park, a softball/soccer complex where we did a long perimeter run, including our first water station of the day. This is where we also got back out in the direct sun for the first time in a couple of miles, and we immediately realized how nice the shade had been for us. Once we completed the loop, we were back over the bridge and returning down the greenway through River Village and the park to Catawba Meadows.

The 10k runners had gotten pretty much strewn out along the route, and I don't really remember passing anyone or being passed from about the 3.5-mile mark through the end of the race. It was very pleasant running, with just the sounds of our own breathing to go along with the leaves blowing in the breeze and the gurgling of the Catawba River over the more rocky sections. At about 4.5 miles, we passed the finish area, and we could see the finish line and hear the cheering as some of the last runners finished the 5k. But the 10k runners had to keep going and run a good part of the 5k route before we would be allowed to finish. This section of the route also followed close by the Catawba River, and as I made my way out to the turnaround and through the second water station, it was clear that we were so stretched out that I probably would not be passing any other runners the rest of the way. I could see the runners behind me coming out to the turnaround, so I hollered encouragement the best I could, including to Chad, who was taking it easy on his legs after a long 15-mile run the previous day. Chad did turn it on in his last mile and caught and passed the two runners ahead of him before they all reached the finish line.

Making the final few turns and hitting the finish line felt great; the folks from Lee Timing did a great job compiling the results and having the stats for all three races ready very quickly. I was very pleased to just get under 62 minutes for the 10k, which represented my first sub-10:00 pace in a 10k in several months. We were both even more delightedly surprised to discover that I had pulled in 3rd place in my age group!

There were all kinds of trophies for the winners of all three races; Chad quipped that if he had known how nice the mile trophies were, he would have done that race instead! One school was presented with a check in recognition of having the most students take part in the mile. Finally we got through all the mile and 5k trophies and I was very pleased to get my 3rd place age group trophy to put in a place of honor on the tour bus. We partook of the post-race fruit and cookies and enjoyed the beautiful scenery there in the valley of the Appalachian foothills.

We have to hand it to John Tate: the man knows a good race when he sees one! We were very happy to have taken his advice and included the Sunrise Run 10k in our countdown. I hope that we'll be able to do this run again and run it with John next time! We enjoyed our time in Burke County very much!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Movie about Texas County-Collecting

The Texas Monthly magazine invited its readers to send in movies about "where they're from" of ten minutes or less. Documentary filmmaker Will O'Loughlen, who collected all 254 counties in Texas, submitted a film about why he visits each county in the Lone Star State and the various parts of Texas that he sees which most people miss.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sixty!

Well, it's been just about ten months since we passed the 50% mark in this little quest, but we've had a great spring and summer -- including three new counties in August -- and we've reached the 60-county mark! We've got a handful of new-county opportunities this fall, so hopefully we can really make 2011 a year with a lot of new miles both driven and run! It's been great meeting new folks and making new friends as we've toured the state, and we appreciate all the support we're getting! Only forty new counties to go until we've visited the whole state! Here's to a fun rest of 2011!

Complete: Alamance, Ashe, Avery, Bertie, Brunswick, Buncombe, Cabarrus, Carteret, Catawba, Chatham, Chowan, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Dare, Davidson, Davie, Durham, Edgecombe, Forsyth, Gaston, Graham, Granville, Greene, Guilford, Harnett, Haywood, Hertford, Hoke, Iredell, Jackson, Johnston, Lenoir, Macon, Mecklenburg, Montgomery, Moore, Lincoln, Nash, New Hanover, Onslow, Orange, Pender, Perquimans, Randolph, Robeson, Rockingham, Rowan, Rutherford, Sampson, Scotland, Stanly, Surry, Swain, Tyrrell, Union, Vance, Wake, Warren, Wilkes

Still to go: Alexander, Alleghany, Anson, Beaufort, Bladen, Burke, Caldwell, Camden, Caswell, Cherokee, Clay, Cleveland, Currituck, Duplin, Franklin, Gates, Halifax, Henderson, Hyde, Jones, Lee, Madison, Martin, McDowell, Mitchell, Northampton, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Person, Pitt, Polk, Richmond, Stokes, Transylvania, Washington, Watauga, Wayne, Wilson, Yadkin, Yancey

Haywood County - Maggie Valley Moonlight 8k Run - August 27, 2011

When we started looking at the races that were held in the various counties, the big race that stood out in Haywood County was the Maggie Valley Moonlight 8k Run. This race had been held for almost three decades, always drew a big crowd from around the southeast and the east coast, and had been a favorite of some of our running friends. The problem was, the race lost support in the local community and went away after the 2007 running -- the 29th. We thought a different race would represent Haywood County in the countdown, but earlier this year we happened upon the very, very good news that interest in the Moonlight Run had returned, with new support from the area and new organizers -- Maggie was back for her 30th in 2011!

Speaking of the local community, it was Chamber-of-Commerce type weather when we arrived on US 19 Saturday afternoon before the race. The mountains stood out against a beautiful blue sky with a nice breeze blowing through the area. Packet pickup was set up for the afternoon in the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds, a large, grassy area in the middle of town that provided plenty of space for runners to hang out and sponsors to organize, plus a stage that would be used after the race for awards. The organizers, hoping to revive some of the cammeraderie of the race's early history, set aside space for a row of tents representing running clubs from all over the state, and North Carolina Roadrunners Club was proudly represented, even if our tent did blow over once. As runners came and went over the course of the afternoon, it was great to feel the anticipation and excitement building towards the evening's race.

As the evening started to arrive and the sun just started to slip down among the mountaintops, the comfortable air actually started to feel kind of cool; the mountain air felt great, and you knew it was going to be a perfect running evening. Plenty of portable lights lit up the area as the sun went down, and the crowd really picked up as even more runners arrived for the event. The organizers and city had really lobbied for crowd and spectator support, and sure enough, residents and visitors were setting out chairs and tables to get good positions to watch the race. We were especially pleased to see one family setting up to tailgate alongside the race course. And it was great to have such a great team from NCRC taking part -- Chad and myself, Chad's wife Koren, our good friend Charles, and previous-Maggie-runner Erv, who was nursing an ankle injury and wouldn't be able to take part this year. It was great to be part of Maggie's revival!

Shortly before race time the organizers and law enforcement from all around the area diverted the traffic from two lanes of US 19 in preparation for the race, and all the runners were ushered out onto the road for the national anthem and announcements for the runners, including a remembrance of one of the early organizers of the race who lost a battle with leukemia earlier this year. Another figure from the early years of the race blew the horn to start us all, and we were off up the hill!

The course apparently was simplified from earlier years; we were just going to run west on US 19 for a little over a mile (uphill), but then after turning around in front of Ghost Town in the Sky, we were going to have a nice, long downhill for a couple of miles before turning around again and returning up a moderate hill to the Festival Grounds for the finish. Sure enough, the efforts to get spectators out to watch the race had produced lots of results, with plenty of people along both sides of the road cheering on the runners. In one location, it appeared all the residents and visitors in an RV park had come out to line the street. It really did turn out to be a big event for the area, and I'm sure the business owners and residents appreciated the economic development aspects of the race.

The first mile-plus of the race was uphill to the turnaround point, but I really felt like I was running OK, and with the cool air of the night and the festival atmosphere of the race, I was able to keep pushing it and maintaining a decent pace the whole way. As the leaders made the turn and came back past us, it was easy to tell they were pushing the pace downhill. I was able to spot Charles as he came by and pushed him along; he had said earlier that he was looking forward to a fast night race. I finally made the turnaround and was pleased to be able to pick up my pace a bit for the downhill, but about the 2-mile mark, Koren passed me like I was lying in the road. (8k is Koren's favorite race distance and she was also enjoying the downhill.)

Fortunately it was a very long downhill grade, and we passed more spectators and the Festival Grounds entrance at a pretty good clip, and then it was another mile to the east turnaround point. All along the way there were Highway Patrol troopers, sheriff deputies, EMTs, and first responders from all over the area to control traffic and to take care of any health emergencies. Finally at the turnaround, we had a level grade for a bit, and then it was back up a more moderate hill to the finish line. I spotted Chad after the turnaround and hollered some encouragement to him. I got a quick drink at the 4-mile aid station -- they had provided water about every mile -- and tried to keep pushing it back in. The cloggers at the Stompin' Ground musical theater cheered for us and stomped their little clogged feet as we went by. I was tempted to cut back on the pace a little bit, but then I saw the scrolling text of the Festival Grounds sign and knew we were almost home. A little more hill, a few more spectators, and then we made the turn into the Festival Grounds and ran a little sprint to the finish line.

The finish area was full of runners celebrating the end of the race, and it was a great atmosphere as we all caught up with each other to talk about it. Charles had met his goal in the race with a great performance; Koren was more than pleased with how she ran; and Chad and I finished! But I was pleased with my overall pace and enjoyed being part of Maggie's return. The organizers provided plenty of after-race food and drink, including some adult beverages provided by one of the race's sponsors. It was a very nice evening with plenty of festivities celebrating the return of the Moonlight Run, and I was happy we were there to help take part in the celebration. Maggie's return to Haywood County was a great success, with 378 runners finishing the 8k, and I'm glad we were able to include it in the countdown! I hope Maggie returns for many years to come!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Graham County - The Dam Race 10k - August 27, 2011

Fontana Dam is the highest dam in the eastern United States; it was built during World War II to leverage the Little Tennessee River for electric generation to support wartime industry -- including the development of the atomic bomb in nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It still generates power for the Tennessee Valley Authority today and is the centerpiece of a large recreational lake, Fontana Lake, many hiking trails, and a nice visitors center. The dam and the Little Tennessee straddle the Graham/Swain county line. The Appalachian Trail crosses the top of the dam. And now for two years it's been the home of The Dam Race, a 5k/10k/mile event run in August to help bring visitors to the area during the slow weekend before Labor Day weekend. The race also benefits the Fontana Foundation, a non-profit that organizes relief help for families in the area, organizes recycling and education programs, and establishes hiking trails and fire departments in the area.

Race director Karl Sutter seemed to be everywhere race weekend. He was heading up the Friday afternoon packet pickup, and then he hurried to Fontana Lake where he hosted tours of the lake for the incoming runners. The lake was big and beautiful, and Karl took us all over, showing us the beauty of the area and describing the terrain. The water was gorgeous shades of blue and green, and the water level was down as the dam staff had begun releasing some of the summer buildup for the fall season. Fortunately, Karl told us, the race course itself was much flatter than the mountains and hills we observed from the lake.

He was correct! When the Little Tennessee exits the powerhouse at the bottom of the dam, it's in a very level area. There is an access road on both the east and the west of the Little Tennessee, with a bridge (NC highway 28) about a mile down from the dam. The race courses took us up and down the access roads and across the bridge; the 5k runners would only cross the bridge once and do the west-side up and back, while the 10k runners would cross the bridge three times, running the west-side twice and the east-side out and back once.

Race morning was nice and foggy and cool; I wish we could have started at 8:00 a.m. to take advantage of the weather rather than waiting until 9:00 a.m., but maybe next year. The finish area and race-day packet pickup was located at the lower Fontana Dam entrance, a wonderful big amphitheater with large rock cliffs on one side, the river on the other, with more green mountains beyond that. The small race staff was busily checking runners in and handing out the nice yellow tech t-shirts, and there was a wonderful bluegrass trio playing music for all to enjoy. (The first tune I heard them play was "Rocky Top," of course.)

The 5k runners and the milers were shuttled out to their respective starting positions; the 10k runners had only a little walk over the bridge and onto the east access road to reach our starting point. There was a very good crowd of 10k runners attending the event this year, and we spread out across the road as the course marshals got ready to begin the race. The 5k and 10k starts were coordinated over the radio so that both groups started together, and we were quickly off and running up the little hill that took us back up to the NC 28 bridge. The first pass across the bridge and through the finish area was great, with all the spectators cheering us on and the bluegrass trio serenading us as we passed. Then we had a nice, quiet stretch as we jogged along the river toward the dam. The dam itself is somewhat hidden behind a curve, so suddenly it appeared before us as if a curtain was being drawn back. I had surveyed the dam from the top on Friday, but the view from the access road along the river was very impressive, too, as you could really perceive its height and massive size. Off to the right you could see the exit pipes of the spillways, and above there was a big nest of electrical lines leading away from the powerhouse. We made a quick loop around the parking area in front of the powerhouse and then we were headed back to the finish area and the bridge.

By this time the 5k runners were starting to catch us, and after about 1.5 miles of my running, the lead 5k runner caught up and passed me. Fortunately, only about four or five 5k runners "lapped" me and got to the finish line before I passed it to head across the bridge and the east-side access road. We got a brief downhill and then we were running along the river again, this time at a little lower elevation, which gave us a good view of the 5k runners along the west side. The 10k leaders had already made their east-side turnaround and passed us heading back to the bridge, and eventually I was in the campground that is at the east turnaround, where some campers were there for the race and others were just out camping, somewhat surprised by the runners coming and going through camp. We could also hear some waterfalls on the eastern mountain face, but we could only see a bit of them; the majority of the waterfalls were hidden by the heavy rhododendron growth there.

Finally I was across the bridge for the last time and making the final out-and-back on the west side to the dam and back. There were some much-appreciated volunteers manning aid stations, and some spectators out for a walk gave us some encouragement. The weather was getting hotter and more humid by now, but every once in a while we got into a nice open space where there was a great breeze helping to keep us going. We ran up a quick rise and suddenly we were there at the 10k finish, with the 5k awards being given out and the bluegrass trio filling time with more music.

I finished in the last knot of runners, and there was some Powerade and cold water ready for all the race finishers. (Some fruit or bread would have been great.) Law enforcement and volunteers did a great job controlling traffic in the area, and as the awards were given out there was also a raffle to raise money for some military-related charities, with the prizes provided by resorts or running stores in the western North Carolina area. It was great to cool down in some of the remaining shade, and it was a very nice surprise to find out that I had finished second in my age group! The age group awards were big, ceramic coffee mugs with the race logo and colors to indicate how you did; the overall winners in both races received very nice backpacks with The Dam Race logo embroidered on them and beautiful pottery plates. It was also a bonus that Robbie Bass from The Athletes Foot in Raleigh was there to run and won his age group, so both of us got to bring some trophy hardware back to Raleigh!

I had a great time with my weekend at Fontana Dam; the accommodations at Fontana Village were great, the hospitality was wonderful, and it was a very enjoyable 10k up and down the Little Tennessee River at the foot of the dam. Karl Sutter and his crew did a great job, and I hope they will continue to see participant numbers increase year after year! Thanks for a great race!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Warren County - The Crossing 1-Miler - August 13, 2011

Well, like the plastic surgeon said to the prospective client, "they can't all be big ones."

When the goal is to run an event in each county, you can't hold out for a half-marathon or a 10k, even for a 5k. Not every county has a big race, or even a race. That was the case with our trip to Warren County for the 7th annual The Crossing 1-mile event.

The Crossing is a 1-mile swim across Lake Gaston sponsored by O'Sail -- the Organization to Support the Arts, Infrastructure and Learning on Lake Gaston. The Crossing is one of O'Sail's three big fundraising events each year -- and maybe the most fun. A channel of buoys is anchored in the lake outlining a 1-mile route from Morningstar Marina on the south side to Watersview Restaurant on the north shore, along Eaton's Ferry Bridge. Then all manner of human-powered vessels make the 1-mile trip across the lake, ahead of plenty of swimmers (169 this year) that are either racing or swimming recreationally across Lake Gaston. And in the last couple of years, they have added a 1-mile walking event across Eaton's Ferry Bridge. So even though it wasn't a race, it's a great event in a beautiful location and I'm glad we got there.

The O'Sail organizers do a wonderful job coordinating with any of the local authorities that need to be there to provide oversight and safety for the event -- the Warren County Sheriff's office, the Coast Guard Auxilary Patrol, a dive team, the local wildlife protection agency, plenty of EMTs and first-responders, and lots of volunteers. As I got there, the competitive swimmers were being chipped and all the participants, whether they were runners, walkers, team rowers or paddlers, or swimmers, were being numbered triathlon-style and given their directions. Sponsors were introduced and thanked, final announcements were made, and then it was time for The Crossing!

The walkers and joggers were the first ones out, most importantly to get a good view from the bridge of the swim start. I counted three other folks who were there to run besides myself, so after the sheriff's deputies closed one lane of the bridge to traffic -- they shuttled traffic back and forth in the remaining lane all morning -- we literally had the run of the bridge! From the entrance of Morningstar Marina across the bridge to the exit of Watersview Restaurant was almost exactly a mile, so it was very easy to keep track of how far I had gone. I made my first trip across and turned back to see all the flotilla headed across the lake. There were lots of kayaks, rowboats, canoes, paddleboards, and an inflatable raft or two spread across the lake making various speeds. Many of the groups were wearing costumes or funny hats, and more than a few were festooned with flags, balloons or signs. One team was themed, "rowing Miss Daisy." Along the 1-mile route, there were large numbers of engine-powered crafts watching the festivities and providing encouragement to all, along with the safety vessels.

Meanwhile, the swimmers had been loaded onto a military landing craft (MLC) which shuttled them all from the marina out to where the 1-mile swim route started. The faster swimmers wearing the timing chips went into the water first, followed by the recreational swimmers whose goal was just to get across. All the swimmers received bright yellow Morningstar Marina swim caps, and it was great to see all the yellow caps bobbing along at various speeds all along the bridge.

I finished my first lap and headed back out for another. The walkers, which consisted of folks of all ages and included a wheelchair and a few strollers, were more spread out this lap since most of them were tracking the progress of various swimmers and boaters, cheering them along and having a grand old time. I saw the leading swimmers getting close to the north shore, where they had a short run up the bank to a finish line to make the trip an official mile. Naturally, the lead swimmers looked the part and could have just come from a triathlon, but all the swimmers appeared to be enjoying the group outing in the lake. I turned around and headed back across.

By the time I started my third lap, the shuttle buses bringing the finished swimmers and boaters back to the starting area were starting to run, and more than a few of the walkers were heading back to the marina, too. The sun was getting hotter and the humidity had me soaking wet, but there was a nice breeze blowing that helped keep me cool -- and blew some of the trailing boaters and swimmers a little off-course. The MLC was now picking up the course buoys as the trailing swimmers passed them -- just like our races, where we have a trailing vehicle for safety, at The Crossing they had a trailing Sea-Doo. More and more folks were coming back across the bridge, and a few folks gave me some encouragement as they recognized I had been doing multiple laps back and forth. (I didn't see any other runners sticking around past one lap across the bridge and back.)

Swimmers, boaters and walkers all got a Crossing t-shirt at the finish line, so my last time turning around I made sure and picked mine up, tossing it over my shoulder for the last mile back. Some cheerful gentlemen from one of the local churches had been offering cold bottled water to the walkers all morning, and I was happy to get a bottle myself as I arrived back at the marina to complete my effort. I was very happy to get six miles in all going back and forth across the lake, taking in the whole spectacle of the morning and enjoying all the activity and celebration of the event.

It was also nice to run into NCRC buddy Frank Lilley, who lives in the Littleton area of Warren County, and former NCRC members Spencer Compos and his wife, who were floating across the lake in an inflatable raft with their sons to celebrate their 25th anniversary. It was great to finally make it up to Lake Gaston and Warren County! The Crossing was a lot of fun, and maybe next year we'll see if we can't manage to finish the 1-mile swim ourselves!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Wilkes County - Headed to College 8k - May 21, 2011

One of the signs welcoming you to Wilkesboro, North Carolina carries the slogan, "Where the Mountains Begin." Driving around the area before the start of the race, I looked at the hills and elevation changes and worried we would be seeing a lot of those mountains once the race began. The area in the foothills is beautiful, especially on a cool spring morning like this one, but it was easy to see we might be spending a lot of the 8k going up and down.

The 8th annual Headed to College 8k is a fundraiser for the Communities in Schools of Wilkes County. CIS provides a surrounding support system for students, encouraging them to stay in school and succeed in life. Race check-in and the finish line were at Wilkes Community College (home of the Cougars), at the Doc Watson Stage that is the main entertainment hub for the bluegrass MerleFest festival each spring. In addition to the 8k, there was also a 5k event and a 1-mile fun run. Check-in was no problem, and the staff was very, very helpful in explaining where everything was and where we needed to be. The Watson Stage is surrounded by a huge green field for the festival, and with the cool morning air in the mountain foothills, it was a really nice morning and atmosphere for the race.

The 8k is a point-to-point race, so in turns all the 8k runners were shuttled in WCC vans out to the starting line, which was at Central Wilkes Middle School. The folks organizing the starting line area were very friendly, and one woman explained that after about the 2-mile mark, we would have the hard part of the course behind us. I silently hoped she was right and that I'd be reaching that 2-mile mark very soon! One very pretty woman in pink told me she was very, very nervous because it was her first road race, even though she had been running for a while. There were a couple of young-ish looking runners, and more than a handful of senior runners also taking part. Finally, when the last shuttle had arrived and the runners disembarked, we lined up along a speed bump in the school's entrance loop, the starter's pistol fired, and we were off -- headed to college!

We quickly crossed NC highway 16 and headed up the first hill along NC highway 18, which led through a few curves and rolling ups and downs, and then after another turn we were out on the rural roads on the outskirts of Wilkesboro and Moravian Falls. There were very few spectators to speak of, but occasionally we'd see folks on their porch or hear dogs barking as the only indications that runners were going by. (It reminded me of the rural parts of the Run to Victory half-marathon in Randleman.) There were some rolling hills, but nothing too bad, and the runners were able to have some good conversations and encourage each other along.

The worst hill of the early going was a big climb going up to the 2-mile mark, and thanks to the downhill before it, we could easily see it coming. Fortunately, there was an aid station right there at the top of the hill, and then about a quarter-mile afterwards, we made the promised left-hand turn and got to experience some good stretches of downhill. We had our first glimpse of some very nice mountain views off to our left, and in the early morning sunshine the foothills and the mountains looked very majestic off in the distance. The course was very well marked, and there were helpful course monitors each time we came to a turn. And the promised downhills really did show up; we had a nice, easy downhill stretch for what seemed like an awfully long time, a great chance to coast along and catch my breath and let my legs stretch out a little bit. There were a few more bumps and rises up to the 3-mile mark, followed by another turn and a sudden sharp uphill.

After that quick change, though, we were in a residential area with what seemed like one sharp downhill after another (and a few speed bumps to keep cars -- or runners -- from picking up too much speed on the descents). I was very surprised by the amount of downhill in the area, and I was concerned there might be some uphills coming to make up for them. In this residential area, there were groups of spectators that had come out to watch the runners go by, from one bunch of families watching at one intersection to a solitary senior citizen watching from his scooter as he smoked his morning cigar. A few more turns, another set of downhills, and we were back in the flatter commercial area leading to the college. There were a few smaller hills on the way back into campus, but then we could see the field ahead with the finish line and there were more spectators cheering us in. (The 5k event had started just about five minutes earlier, so there were more people there seeing those finishers in.) A couple more turns and we were at the finish line! I was very surprised and pleased to be 4th in my age group; there were 43 finishers overall (76 finished the 5k). I wished afterwards I had tried to kick past the four people running together in front of me; they finished about a second ahead of me, including the fellow who finished 3rd in my age group. (The woman in pink ran very well in her first race, keeping a respectable 9:00 pace and finishing strong.)

At the finish, each of us received a very welcome ice towel and we were directed along the greenway and onto the wing of the stage, where there was a post-race spread that was very, very impressive. Plenty of apples, bananas and bread, plus sausage biscuits and donuts in case you wanted to put back in the calories you had just burned off. There was also some very good, strong Powerade waiting for us. It was a very nice treat for all the runners, and very appreciated. The overall winners -- men and women, including masters -- in both the 8k and 5k received very nice trophies, and the first three placers in each age group all received nice ribbons and medals.

The best story from the race was from Eric, who had driven security for some of the earlier instances of the race as part of his job with the Wilkes County Sheriff's Office. He had been inspired by the runners and mentioned to one of his co-workers that he would like to run the 8k. His co-worker told Eric that if he finished the 8k, he'd wear a pink tutu. Sure enough, after a few months of training, Eric finished the 8k, finished 2nd in his age group, and after the finish he was just as excited about finishing as he was about getting his buddy to pay up very soon. So if you see someone at the sheriff's office wearing a pink tutu, now you know the story!

Congrats to the folks involved for putting on a great Headed to College 8k! Here is my Garmin data so you can see that in the mountains they actually put together a point-to-point course with an overall elevation drop of about 200 feet!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Union County - Waxhaw Town & Country 5k Run - April 29, 2011

Sometimes we find Friday night races and they can be a lot of fun and very different with the evening atmosphere. One Friday night race and a new county we've had our eye on for a year or two is the Waxhaw Town & Country 5k Run in Union County, right outside of Charlotte. Up until this year the calendar had not worked out, however. There are a few races we can choose from in Union County, but the Waxhaw race is a function of the Waxhaw-Weddington Sunrise Rotary Club, and we have a soft spot in our heart for services organizations. (plus we just like saying, "Waxhaw")

This was the 6th annual Waxhaw Town & Country 5k Run, and it's a big race in a little bitty town. 406 runners were listed in the 5k results, not counting the spectators and the runners in the half-mile fun run. With sponsor tents and race setup thrown in -- and with the area hard-edged by a set of train tracks -- the town center is absolutely packed with people. Some of the lucky spectators get to watch the festivities from the old footbridge over the train tracks, which date to 1888 and were refurbished in 2008. They are a lovely landmark and provide a nice spot from which to see the race.

Once you find a parking place and walk in to race headquarters, you wander through the crowds to check in. I arrived just as the half-mile fun run was taking off, and there was a very large crowd to see the fun-runners. Queen City Timing was managing the race, and once the half-mile was over, they began ushering the 5k runners into the street behind the start/finish line for race instructions. The town square area had been divided into "lanes" with caution tape, first to allow for runners to head out, then to pass through at the half-mile, then for the finish.

When we were all ready to take off, they blew the horn and we were off paralleling the train tracks through the town square. Teams are recognized in the run, so there were several school-based teams running together, having a great time. We made a very quick loop around a couple of blocks and passed back through the start/finish area just about a half-mile into the race, with spectators cheering us all through the block. Then we made a couple more turns and were out into the first out-and-back section of the race. Someone told me after the race that the reason for all the twists, turns and out-and-backs was first to keep us from having to cross the train tracks but also to keep us within the small city limits of Waxhaw proper.

In addition to the cool temps of the evening, most of the race course was nice and shady thanks to the big, old trees in the yards lining the course, and there was a bit of a breeze as well to provide excellent running conditions. Some very friendly volunteers gave us water at the one-mile mark, and then we turned onto another out-and-back section which was through a relatively new subdivision. All throughout the course, but especially in the subdivision, folks had come out to watch the race from their front yards, porches and driveways. It was great to hear their support and see them out there. However, this was also the stretch where there were some serious hills, and once we were on the road back to town, they pretty much had me running on fumes again.

Fortunately I finally realized how close we were to the finish line -- the approach from behind the town square initially had me thinking we were farther away -- and got a bit of inspiration to push it through the last stretch and across the big red inflatable finish line. The runners spilling back into the town square area increased the activity and excitement, and volunteers handed out sports drink, fruit and bagels to everyone. Someone was playing good music on the PA system, and it was a very nice post-race atmosphere with the sun going down and the merchants in the area promoting post-race dinner specials. I got to survey the scene from the old footbridge and talk to some of the locals who take part in the race every year, as well as several runners who had driven in from Charlotte.

Overall, the Waxhaw Town & Country 5k Run was a great little event, but you wonder how much more it can grow without overgrowing the town square area, which really is a neat little place to situate all the activity. Hopefully the Rotary Club will be able to manage its growth well, keep the volunteers and residents involved, and keep a really nice race around.

And if you think small town races don't have any surprises to offer, after the race I was able to dance with Michael Jackson, an Imperial Stormtrooper, and a cow.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Scotland County - Scotland Memorial Foundation FUNd Run 10-Miler - April 9, 2011

Well, too bad that Chad and I don't have any of the popular running kilts, because this weekend we were headed down I-95 to Scotland County, which really was settled by Highland Scots in the 1700s -- way back when we would have been doing a colony countdown!

The morning weather was perfect and cool in Laurinburg, North Carolina as we arrived for the 7th annual Scotland Memorial Foundation FUNd Run 10-Miler at Scotland Memorial Hospital. (The foundation is the charitable arm of the hospital.) Only 35 runners were registered for the 10-miler, but a good crowd of 169 runners would take part in the 5k event. The main entrance to one of the hospital buildings was set up to serve as the registration and check-in area, and we were able to get inside for a little bit to warm up and have some pre-race fluids. The organizers had set up a kids area with games and bounce houses to occupy the little ones during the race, and a band was setting up on the stage for entertainment later on. Setup Events was doing the race management and their start/finish arch was being inflated as we checked in. A local radio station was doing live updates from the start/finish area and talking with the organizers of the race. Both of us felt nice and relaxed and were looking forward to a good run, although neither one of us had really trained for a big 10-mile performance.

After a fun warm-up session led by members of the local school's wrestling team, the 10-milers were ushered into the starting corral. There were three elementary-school age kids up front that I was afraid were lining up for the wrong race, but when they turned all of us loose, we all were out and on our way! Fortunately, with only 35 runners, there was plenty of room to settle into a good pace, and from my spot safe in the back of the pack, I had a good view as the 10-milers headed out along the hospital access road and stretched out along the way. There were enthusiastic volunteers at the turn points to make sure we didn't get lost, plus there were plenty of road markings to help us along.

The majority of both race routes incorporated the campus of St. Andrews Presbyterian College (home of the Knights). Initially we ran past their athletic fields and across a bridge over the lake that is in the center of campus (duck crossing -- be alert!). We spread out into the surrounding neighborhoods and did a few out-and-backs and loops through some very pretty areas and saw some lovely houses and some pink flowering dogwood trees that were in full bloom. The out-and-backs allowed us to see the majority of the runners in the field, and not surprisingly, three runners from St. Andrews' cross-country team were leading the way. I had a little tightness in my left knee that was new, but after a couple of miles it felt fine; Chad also had some discomfort early on that slowed him down in the early going. We also passed Scotia Village, a Presbyterian-sponsored retirement neighborhood with interesting Scottish-themed street and building names like Tartan Village and Shetland Apartments. The Scotia folks manning the aid station within the village were a lot of fun and very encouraging to the runners. The out-and-backs also gave me a chance to check up on how the youngest runners were doing; one fellow was having no trouble at all with the distance, even as his father followed along in the family van to make sure he was OK. The other two little runners, though, held strong through the first five miles before finally faltering and getting rides back to the finish line, where they got to run across the finish.

After the first half of the race through the neighborhoods, we headed back towards St. Andrews and did a big loop past the "Scotsman" statue and through the main parking lot. The next mile or so had been improvised through the campus, and I enjoyed that stretch a lot. We ran down sidewalks and across quads and meeting areas, and we crossed the lake again on the main campus road and the bell tower that is the main architectural feature of the campus. We passed the main Physical Education building, which features a statue of a knight with sword fighting in full battle armor. (We might have been able to use a more active direction-giving volunteer in one spot where it wasn't clear where to go.) A few more turns, and we were back at the Knights' athletic fields, for another out-and-back down the road we had traversed earlier. This out-and-back gave me a chance to encourage Chad that the fellows running in front of him were having a tough time of it and that he could catch them. Unfortunately, when we got back to the main road, the girls staffing the aid station had retreated to their car to get out of the cold, but as I helped myself to sports drink, they had their windows rolled down so that I could ask whether we were turning left or right at the intersection. (Right, they pointed.) We also encountered some of the slower 5k runners headed back to the hospital.

Admittedly, it was in this range of 6-8 miles that I realized I had a chance at a new 10-mile PR. I don't like to be a constant clock-watcher, but I was trying to maintain a steadier pace than I normally keep. I had felt really good the whole morning and hadn't taken any extra walk breaks beyond the aid stations. I figured I had about 37 minutes to do the final three miles to get a new PR, so that was the focus I kept encouraging myself with. I'm sure the very, very flat course had contributed a lot to the morning's performance, and I'm very thankful for that! When I was ready to be headed to the finish line with the 5k finishers, the 10-milers instead got directed into a new neighborhood for some additional mileage, and although the homes and yards in this area were very, very pretty, nothing would have looked as good to me as the finish line.

A few more turns brought us back to the hospital area, but it was one of those finishes where you pass the finish area, keep going, and circle back around a half-mile or so before you actually get to cross the finish line. I kept plodding along as we retraced our steps from the beginning of the race, and finally a few more turns brought me back to the start/finish area (now augmented with some fire and police vehicles adjacent to the kids zone) where I happily crossed the finish line with a time of 1:45 flat on my Garmin (1:45:02 officially), which was a more than 3-minute improvement over my previous 10-mile PR, which was back in 2009. Chad had recovered from some of his early difficulties and crossed the finish line about 2 minutes later.

The post-race activities were a lot of fun; the band that played was pretty entertaining, and the food and drinks for runners were good and plentiful. Chad had an age-group fourth, and I had an age-group fifth! The race administrators did a great job compiling the results from both races very quickly and handed out some nice medals to each age-group winner and the overall winners. We enjoyed meeting some of the other runners and re-hashing some of the race together, but eventually we got a little chilled in the morning breeze and packed up to head back home. We both mentioned that a race doesn't have to be a great big event to be well-done and a lot of fun! But we had a great time in Scotland County and were very excited about our great performances in the 10-miler! We may just have to come back and enjoy this very flat course again soon!