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!