Monday, April 30, 2012

Hyde County - Ocracoke Island 5k - April 28, 2012

For a long time I had Hyde County on my list of "how are we going to get those counties?".  It looked like there had at one time been an 11-mile race around Lake Mattamuskeet, but I wasn't able to find a running event of any kind in the area.  So it was a great delight to find out earlier this year that someone was bringing a new 5k to Ocracoke Island; it would enable us to be able to run an event in Hyde County and it would give us an opportunity to visit a part of the state neither one of us had ever been to before.

Ocracoke Island is the southernmost of the Outer Banks islands; because it is accessible only by ferry, you have to work a little harder to get there.  Most of the island is dedicated as a national seashore, but on the southern tip of the island you find Ocracoke Village, an unincorporated town gathered around a natural harbor on the sound side of the island.  We arrived the day before the race on the 2.5-hour ferry ride from Swan Quarter on the mainland and headed straight to Gaffer's Sports Pub in an attempt to catch the end of packet pickup, which we only achieved because the race timers were on the same ferry as us.  After packet pickup we drove the race course and were very pleased to find out how flat the island was -- in one tourist packet, it says the whole island is barely above sea level and floods easily when it gets heavy rain -- and how scenic the course was, with lots of turns through neighborhoods and by pretty homes, a stretch along the harborfront and even a pass by Ocracoke Lighthouse.

Race morning was overcast and spitting rain, but there was still a good-sized and exuberant crowd standing along highway 12.  (I guess if you go to the trouble of riding a ferry to stay on the island, even a downpour would not keep you from the race!)  Race director Greg Honeycutt gave us all a final set of directions, and then we walked en masse about another quarter-mile down 12 to where the starting line was painted across the road.  The timers from Run the East got us started, and we were off for our tour of Ocracoke Village!  The sprinkles were just enough to keep us from getting overheated, the clouds were keeping the sun off the runners, and the stronger winds from Friday had not returned, so the running conditions were just about perfect.  It was kind of cold standing around prior to the start, but now that we were moving, we warmed up quickly and actually felt really good to be running.

The first loop on the course was through the neighborhood where you find the Ocracoke Lighthouse.  There were several residents that were out to watch the race and cheer on the runners, which was a very nice touch.  We got to see some beautiful homes and, of course, the serene lighthouse which has been standing guard over the island since 1823.  No time for a tour now, though, as we made a turn and began running along the harbor perimeter.  We could see plenty of boats out on the water and the morning folks headed out for coffee (or maybe heading home from the previous night), and lots of runner families and friends stood outside the hotels to cheer for their favorite runners to keep going.

A couple more turns and we were entering "historic" unpaved Howard Road, where a small water stop had been set up to make sure we had a chance to get a quick drink.  More than 200 structures on the island are on the national historic register, so we definitely saw some historic homes.  I was very delighted with an older couple who had brought chairs out to the street so that they could see these runners coming right through their neighborhood.  With the gravel road and the canopy of trees over our head, this stretch really gave a nice atmosphere to the course.  We made some more turns and came near the British cemetery, where some sailor casualties from WWII were buried on American soil.  Then we made a long sweep down Back Road to bring us back to highway 12, where we could just see the finish line area out in the distance.  The last half-mile or so along highway 12 featured more friends and family who had come out to cheer the runners, and the crowds increased all along the way back to Gaffer's Sports Pub, where the finish line arch was set up.  We both had been running very well all through the race, and we even crossed the finish line two seconds apart in the official results, both of us with 5k PRs for 2012!

The flat course, ideal running conditions and pleasant scenery really contributed to a just-about-perfect running experience at this new race.  They get plenty of kudos for covering many important details in this inaugural event, and they announced during the post-race festivities that the 2013 date has already been set and that they will be adding a 10k event to the schedule.  The race shirts and post-run food and drink (including a party later in the morning) were all nice touches.  It was a great trip to Hyde County and Ocracoke Island for this event, and I can't wait to come back and visit again.  I'm very glad we made it to run on the island!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Lee County - Run the BUCK 5k - April 21, 2012

Festivals and celebrations have been a big help in trying to find races to run in a lot of North Carolina's counties. A great example of that is the Run the BUCK 5k race in Broadway, North Carolina, which hosts the "Broadway Our Way" festival each spring ("more fun than NYC!"). Although the festival has been going on for many years, four years ago they were looking for some active, family-involved ways to kick the festivities off in the early morning, and they settled on the Run the BUCK 5k road race (now accompanied by the Ride the BUCK cycling events of 50k and 100k).

The "BUCK" name comes from the race's origins; originally the working name for the race was "Broadway Under the Caution light 5K" or "Begins Under the Caution light 5K", and the BUCK abbreviation stuck. (Yes, Broadway does have only one light, a flashing caution light as you enter town on -- what else -- Main Street.) The BUCK name comes in handy for providing a theme for race shirts and trophies, which have featured buck deer. And, it only costs a few bucks to sign up.

Race morning this year was cool and overcast, a big change from the more mild temperatures we've been having most of the spring. And you could feel it was more humid than usual, not a big surprise given the rain forecast for later in the day. But, as someone pointed out as we milled around the registration area, even rain would be better than last year's weather, when Saturday afternoon tornadoes really tore up wide areas of Lee County. No such forecasts this year, though.

Getting through registration was a breeze, so there was time to wander around the setup of the Broadway My Way festival. Although lots of vendors were setting up their stands and the BBQ cookoff was filling the air with scents, I was immediately drawn to the display of antique cars and vintage farm tractors. A very pretty 1940 Packard and a mint 1979 Ford Ranger were some of the nicest cars there, along with a 1938 Chevy that had been converted into a hearse. The Farmall tractors dating back to the 50s and 40s had been well-maintained, and one of them was even being used to pull a tram from the farthest festival parking areas.

Eventually Broadway mayor Don Andrews called all the runners to the starting line and gave us quick directions on the event. (The race now starts just off Main Street, not under the caution light.) He gave us an overview of the route, where the water station would be, and some advice on the dogs: they love to come out and bark at runners and bikers, but they're all behind invisible fences. When the bullhorn started blaring "Fur Elise", it was time to run!

Fortunately, the area just east of the sandhills is relatively flat, so we were in for a very fast run. There were only a few gradual rises that we had to negotiate, and most of the route was flat or only had a bit of elevation change. The course took us through a lot of the residential neighborhoods out along the town outskirts, and it was a very pleasant surprise to see many of those living along the race route out to either cheer or gawk at the runners, including one whole family that came out to watch the runners go by. The Lee County sheriff had some deputies out as well to watch over traffic control, and volunteers monitored most of the intersections to make sure we didn't get lost. (There were very good pavement markings to make sure we didn't miss anything.)

Just before the halfway point we passed by a water station, and then we made a very pleasant loop around the Broadway Town Park, which circles a good-sized lake and includes walking trails, observation benches, and the town council headquarters. This was a very pretty spot in the run, and one of the houses that backed up to the lake had a fence along the street that was just covered and weighted down with gorgeous rose bushes, almost all of which were packed with deep-red blooms. Very, very pretty. The remnants of spring were visible in many other of the groomed lawns, but those rose bushes were the highlight of the route.

After we left the town park we passed by the two-mile mark and then it was back through some different neighborhoods back to the festival area. There were a couple of uphills here that knocked my pace down somewhat, but I was still pleased that the morning coolness and relatively flat course was helping me knock out some good miles. Some helpful volunteers stopped traffic for us as we crossed Main Street back to the start/finish area, and then we made a few final turns around one of the churches. As I rounded the last turn I could see 29:50-something on the finish line clock, but I had too much ground to cover to be able to get under the 30:00 mark that is usually my 5k goal. But it was still one of my better 5Ks of the year, so I was very pleased. There was nice, cold water available for us right after the finish line, and they had the results compiled very quickly after the last runner had finished. I was even more surprised to come home with 3rd place in my age group -- definitely a good run for me!

The scent of BBQ was getting even stronger as we walked around post-race soaking up the Broadway Our Way sights and sounds. It was a lot of fun to be in this part of Lee County in the morning, and I'll definitely have to come back to see if I can get beat that 30-minute clock next year!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Halifax County - Gallberry Stampede 10-Miler - April 14, 2012

The community of Scotland Neck in Halifax County got its name in the 1700s when a group of Scottish settlers came to the "neck" of the Roanoke River. The town name was officially adopted in the 1800s, and today it's still one of the most unusual town names in the state. It was also today's destination for the 4th annual Gallberry Stampede Health and Fitness Challenge. The race is run on a flat cross-country course adjacent to the Our Community Hospital and Allison-Sherain Rehab & Wellness Center. Kudos to them for adding a get-out-and-move event that most residents could take part in alongside runners of longer distances.

No matter what distance you were interested in, the Stampede was likely to interest you. For the walkers, there was a pleasant 2k loop, and for the runners, there were 5k, 10k and 10-mile races. All of the events went through the pastures of Gallberry Farm, which had at one point been a big dairy farm but today is used for cotton farming. With little activity in the field this time of year, it was perfect for laying out cross-country routes of various distances to entertain the runners. The logo on the shirts had a cute cartoon of a cow in running shoes, and we were promised "cow patties" -- chocolate cookies with nuts -- at each of the aid stations. Each event had its own "lollipop" style course, with the 2k and 5k runners each doing one loop of their route, the 10k runners doing two turns around their loop, and the 10-mile runners going around their loop three times before heading to the finish.

Although the runners thought the race started at 8:30 a.m. -- because that's what it says on the website -- the organizers were convinced it started at 9:00 a.m., so there was a lot of standing around and waiting in the morning. Fortunately, the extra waiting time answered questions about how warm it was going to get that morning, so I had the opportunity to ditch my long-sleeve shirt and opt for a short-sleeve. The air was still plenty cool when we finally got around to starting, but it was clear it was going to be much warmer by the time I finished my ten miles around the fields. They did mention that this running of the Gallberry would involve twice as many runners as the previous year.

Before the race I ran into NCRC member Frank Lilly and some of his running friends from the Rocky Mount Endurance Club, a very fun social and running club that is involved in a lot of the great events around the Rocky Mount area. They turned out a good number of runners for the Stampede, and it was great to hear their thoughts about previous years at the Gallberry and how some of the other runs around the area had gone so far during the year. Even the RMEC members that were running shorter events stayed around to get some extra miles on the various loop courses.

The lack of rain the Carolinas this spring made for a very dry, dusty course. The land is naturally sandy, and the lack of moisture gave us a variety of running surfaces; in some places it was hard-packed dirt, in some places softer and sandier, in some places gravel, and in some places mowed scrub grass and weeds. The changing surfaces led us to be aware of what was under our feet and look for opportunities to find the best running track we could. But it was a nice change-of-pace to be off the roads and running some cross-country, although it did bring back memories of previous cross-country races where I re-learned that it's sometimes more tiring to have to pull your feet up and out of grass and sandy surfaces than it is gliding across paved blacktop.

We ran by some of the farm buildings, underneath huge mobile irrigation systems, over improvised creek bridges and by debris piles from cleared land. The organizer joked that previous races "didn't have enough hills", so they took dirt from a just-dug irrigation pond, graded it into a hill, and ran the course right over the top of it. I dubbed it "Gallberry Mountain," and it was a good vantage point to see the whole event. Actually, because the fields were wide-open and flat, and the off-season scrub growth was still low, you could look in just about any direction and see brightly-colored runner gear moving around the farm. That was helpful in getting an idea where the courses went, but it also meant you had a good idea exactly how far back you were from the runners ahead of you.

The first lap around the 10-mile loop was very pleasant as we learned the course and had plenty of other runners around us. There were three aid stations on the route -- one of them you passed twice on an out-and-back segment they called the "pigtail" -- and they were stocked with cool water, wonderfully over-strong Gatorade, and the promised "cow patty" cookies. Plus, there were two guys monitoring the course on four-wheelers, which looked like more fun than we were having. It was right after Gallberry Mountain that the loops diverged to make them appropriate lengths for the various distances, but you still were in close proximity to the other runners.

The 5k runners completed their loop and headed for the finish line, leaving only the 10k and 10-mile runners out in the fields. That meant there were fewer runners out there to encourage and watch across the fields. Another 3+ miles later, I started my final loop and watched the last of the 10k entrants exit the fields, leaving only the 10-mile runners going round-and-round through the cotton fields. I could see a very few hats and colored singlets moving around out there, but I was pleased that none of the faster 10-mile runners lapped me.

The final lap was definitely the toughest of the three as the sun got hotter and my legs got caked with another layer of dust and dirt. The Gatorade and water made for nice breaks, but there were only a few runners left to greet on the pigtail, and you could see from the top of Gallberry Mountain that only a few runners were still out on the course. Fortunately I got a second wind with about a mile to go; this time I knew that when I passed the exit for the finish line, it was going to be my turn to take it! Past the wellness center's gazebo I made that turn, and down the final hill I could see the other runners laying out in the sunshine and enjoying the post-race food and drink. I made a last burst across the line and was not surprised to see that the soft footing and rising temperatures had slowed me down from the pace of my previous two 10-milers, but I was still pleased to get the distance in successfully. Frank and I compared notes on the race, and it was good to hear that he and so many of the RMEC runners had enjoyed the events as well. Overall, 19 runners finished the 10-mile event, 13 completed the 10k, 31 the 5k, and another 26 folks got outside to enjoy the 2k route.

It was a nice treat to get out to Halifax County and enjoy a very different cross-country run than what we normally get to experience in our trips across the state. The Gallberry Stampede was a very fun morning, and hopefully it will continue to expand in size as word of it gets around the running community!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Richmond County - Mangum Track Club Shirt Run - April 7, 2012

As the story goes, back in the 1980s some running partners would train for marathons on the rural roads outside Mangum, North Carolina. One year, for Christmas one of the runners got shirts labeled "Mangum Track Club" for the others. When one of the runners' wives asked for a shirt of her own, she was told she had to earn it -- and the MTC Shirt Run was born! Now, more than 400 people from 7 countries (and more than a few canines) have joined the club by running the 15-mile challenging route from Mangum, North Carolina to outside Ellerbe, North Carolina during one of the Shirt Runs held occasionally by the club. Now I'm very happy to be a member, too!

Chad beat me to Richmond County a few years ago when he did the Seaboard Festival 5-Miler, but I'm sure he'll eventually do the MTC Shirt Run, too. MTC is known for all the very talented and dedicated runners (and run organizers) that are part of the club. Their distinctive navy blue Mangum Track Club shirts can be seen all over the area, and you know the effort that went into earning each one of them. I had been hoping to complete the Shirt Run for a couple of years, so I was very happy to finally be standing at the intersection of Grassy Island Road and route 109 with twenty-something other rookies and at least as many veterans (plus one dog) for the 15-mile jog over to the "dog pen" outside of Ellerbe. (Some of the ultra runners had gotten an even earlier start to do the "double shirt run" -- running from Ellerbe to Mangum and back!)

We were blessed with a perfect morning for running -- cool, about 34 degrees at starting time, little wind (at first) and not a cloud in the beautiful blue Carolina morning. Everyone was prepping with fuel belts and camelbacks because the run was mostly unsupported, with only a couple of support vehicles checking on us and some water jugs stashed along the course. All the rookies were lined up for their "before" picture, and then there was another group picture with everyone, and then we were off to earn our shirts! Running with the whole group for the first mile or so was a very pleasant experience, and I got to meet many of the other rookies and some of the veterans, too. Most of us made a quick stop just under a mile into the run to be photographed at the Mangum sign that marks the unincorporated area.

The first five or so miles of the Shirt Run are through some beautiful, flat fields where you can see for long distances in front and behind you. With the winding road going in and out amongst the fields, I got the view a few times of runners' heads and bodies popping up and down just behind the grasses and greenery of the fields. One picture I wish I could have made was looking way ahead into the morning sun and seeing a big knot of runners spreading out across the width of our lane, just like the roads were really made for us that morning. (I only counted about twelve cars in all during my long run, not counting the support vehicles that were following us.)

On the drive into Mangum in the early morning, there was a big, beautiful full moon lighting the roads and buildings into town, and when I crested Pea Ridge in the early dawn, you could see all the mists and fog in the valley below. It was a glorious morning sight, but I didn't realize at the time we'd be running from that valley back up Pea Ridge (Bethel Baptist Church is situated right at the top of the ridge). Once we cleared the fields, Grassy Island Road got much more curvy and included more elevation changes as we started to move higher and higher into the ridge. Mark Long, the organizer of the Shirt Runs and MTC long-timer, ran with me for a couple of miles; he was full of stories and information about the area. He told me about how one year *all* the MTC members ran the Grandfather Mountain Marathon together, about how sometimes you can find Indian artifacts in the trails that criss-cross the area, and about how we were due to get a downhill break for the last few miles -- after we had made it all the way up "Bethel Hill".

The Shirt Run route along Grassy Island Road follows the Great Pee Dee River, but eventually we crossed a bridge at a boat access at about mile 10 and then began the 2-mile ascent up Bethel Hill. The hill, Mark Long pointed out, is kind of tricky because it goes up sharply at first and then curves out of sight; but when you finally get to the curve, you find out that it just keeps going up higher and higher until curving out of sight again. I was more than happy to take a long walk break at the hill and enjoy the sunshine and country views. Originally I had been concerned my gloves and toboggan would be too much, but as the wind picked up, and as we moved back and forth from direct sunlight to shade trees, I was appreciative of the extra layers.

Finally we reached the church at the top of Pea Ridge -- the view was still excellent -- and after a wonderful downhill, we made the only turn on the course -- left onto Holly Grove Church Road at about 12.5 miles -- onto the overall downhill final stretch that Mark Long had told me about. Sean, another one of the double-shirt runners that morning, caught up to me through this stretch and we enjoyed the downhills and the valley views together for a mile or so. A few more rises and curves, and suddenly we came into view of the cars parked at the "dog pen" -- yes, there is a real hunting dog pen there -- at Cartledge Creek Road. All the runners who had completed their runs ahead of me were hanging out enjoying some post-run food and beverages, and I tagged the stop sign at the finish line and was handed my brand-new Mangum Track Club shirt and car sticker just in time to jump into one of the many group pictures that were being made before helping myself to some traditional post-run pizza. It was great getting to review the run with some of my friends from Raleigh and catch up again with the folks we had gotten to meet at the starting area three hours earlier. (I had three hours for my 15-mile goal, but that was before I found out about Bethel Hill; still, I finished in a very respectable 3:09.)

There was much more conversation, much lounging about in lawn chairs in the sunshine, and one veteran shared a song he had written about running marathons. There were still other runners out on the course, so I got a chance to help cheer them in the same way the crowd had cheered for me on my approach. Lots of pictures were made -- it may have been one of the most well-documented social runs in the last few weeks! Finally, though, we had to head back out to our own destinations. We couldn't have asked for better running conditions or a better set of running companions for the morning, and I couldn't have been more pleased to be heading out wearing my own Mangum Track Club shirt! This section of Richmond County was beautiful, and hopefully I'll be back out here when Chad earns his!