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!