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!

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