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!