Monday, July 16, 2012

Person County - Yellow Brick Road 5-Miler - July 14, 2012

Well, so far none of the races in our countdown have used "The Wizard of Oz" as a theme, but that record was about to be broken as we arrived in Roxboro for this 5-miler in Person County.  Getting runners to come out and run in the heat and humidity of a North Carolina July is always a challenge, but having a big themed race was a good strategy.  And there actually was a very good crowd that showed up at Northern Middle School for the race.  It was good to see fellow NCRC runner Val Price and my running friend Wendy Sibley also on hand for the festivities.

The race organizers had encouraged "Wizard of Oz" costumes, and it was good to see that some folks had taken the suggestion to heart.  Wendy was wearing a full Muchkin costume; one of the organizers was the Witch of the East (pre-house falling on her), another fellow was duded up as the Wizard, and four girls ran together as a flying monkey, the rainbow, Glenda the good witch, and Dorothy.  (Even the eventual second-place male runner got great compliments on his Dorothy dress.)  Naturally, I decided just to dress up as a slow runner.

Pre-race was no problem; they were well organized and the volunteers were able to check us all in or register us with no delays.  There was a local dance troupe that entertained us with routines set to "Wizard of Oz" music before we started, and plenty of updates from the race directors.  Eventually we were all encouraged to line up in the main driveway so that they could walk us about a quarter-mile down the main road to where the starting line had been marked across the road.  We were talking amongst ourselves when suddenly an air horn blew and it was time to run!  Our first mile took us back towards the school, around it, in through the back entrance, and back out the front, so all the spectators -- and there were plenty of them -- got a good view of how their runners were starting out.  Then we were back out on the main road, with a quick detour down and back up the streets of a nearby subdivision.  The houses were very pretty, and some of them were still decorated from July Fourth, but the most noticable feature was the first big hill of the course as we made our turnaround and headed back out.

Just about two miles in we reached the water station, and a couple of friendly volunteers got us all re-hydrated as we continued our jog away from the school.  I hadn't known much about the Roxboro topography before the trip, but it was obvious that Person County, up along the Virginia border, has its fair share of elevation changes.  And it was obvious that someone had sunk some time and effort into the race; each mile marker was a good-sized hand-painted scene from the movie with one of the main four characters -- Dorothy for mile 1, the Scarecrow for mile 2, and so on.  With the time obviously spent on painting those great mile markers, I hope the race will be around for a few years to take advantage of them!

We made a turnaround about halfway through the race and headed back towards the school, more than a mile away now.  Each out-and-back turnaround had given me a fresh chance to see the costumes, encourage Val and Wendy, and figure out where I was in the field (near the back).  We passed back through the water stop, saw some more mile markers, and we passed back by the school on the way to the last out-and-back that would bring us up to the full five-mile distance.  Unfortunately for those of us new to Person County, this stretch included a down-and-up on the biggest hill of the course.  It was a blessed break on the way down, but already we were thinking about how it would feel when we made the turn and headed back up.  Sure enough, it was a tough, tough incline, and fortunately we didn't have much distance left when we finally crested it.  I was happy to see the finish line arch ahead of me and jog on through to put that last hill behind me.

They continued the great theming into the post-race celebration.  We each got a finisher's medal, and they had labeled the post-race snacks to match the theme -- flying monkey bananas, rainbow candy (Skittles), and the like.  Nice touches!  There was a good crowd from the Mebane Running Club in addition to those of us representing the NCRC.  Val placed second in his age group, and Wendy got recognition for her great Munchkin costume.  Overall, they had 147 runners finish the race.  They also recognized race beneficiary Person Industries, a non-profit that trains adults with disabilities for work in the private sector.  It was a hoot running the Yellow Brick Road 5-miler, and I hope they continue to have great turnout for the race!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Clay County - Light the Night 5k - July 7, 2012

One of the newest running clubs in North Carolina is the Chatuge Running Club, which is based in Hayesville, North Carolina, in Clay County, along the Georgia border and very close to Tennessee. It’s the home of Chatuge Dam (pronounced “Shuh-TOOG”) and Chatuge Lake, which provides a nice, flat area for running in contrast to the hillier parts of the area. The running club was founded by Dylan Johnson, a rising high-school senior as his senior project, with the goal of providing opportunities and incentive for more youth to get active in running, and for both advanced and novice runners to have a chance to train together and learn from each other. Way to go, Dylan!

The first project of the Chatuge Running Club was the Light the Night 5k, a Saturday evening run through Clay County Recreational Park adjoining Chatuge Dam and Chatuge Lake. The proceeds raised from the race would be used to help local youth-oriented charities in the area. Runners and walkers were encouraged to wear costumes and wear bracelets and necklaces that would glow in the dark, or carry flashlights and headlights to help light up the night course. It sounded like lots of fun, so I dressed up as a slow runner, grabbed some cheap glow-in-the-dark necklaces, and pointed the tour bus towards Hayesville!

It was great to see that the park was nice and shady and relatively flat after a very hot, humid day in the mountains. There were very nice lake views, plenty of folks out enjoying the post-holiday weekend, and even a greenway leading from the park over through more of the coves and marinas over to the main dam, where it crossed the main wall and met up with visitor parking. From the top of the earthen dam you had a good view of both the main lake, the powerhouse intake with its big “Chatuge” sign, and the mountains of in the distance on both sides. The running club had set up shop in the first main pavilion in the park, and there was plenty of room to park, stretch out, meet the other runners, and even play some Frisbee. (And it was good to see Dave Linn again; Dave was the race director when my dad and I attended the run-and-golf Par-5K in Macon County a couple of years ago.)

The costume contest was easily won by a group that dressed as superheroes for the run, even arriving in a low black sports car not unlike the Batmobile! They were definitely the entertainment as we waited for the sun to finish going down so we could start the race. A 1-mile fun run was organized by Dylan and his team for the younger runners, and we all were encouraged to cheer them along. We got some nice evening twilight to run in, but unfortunately the heat and humidity didn’t fall with the setting sun. Still, everyone was in a good mood as the organizers lined us up and sent us out!

Most of the first mile was looping around the access roads and campsites of the park. Many of the campers knew that the runners were coming and sat along the road to watch us go by and holler encouragement to us. Some of the campsites were decorated for the holiday, and it all added up to a very festive atmosphere, plus the setting sun and the lake were very pretty. Then we passed back by the main pavilion on our way out of the park and onto the greenway. The greenway path was open enough that we could see runners well ahead and behind us, and it was a neat sight having so many runners out along the lakeside. There was a quick aid station right around the halfway point, and then we negotiated a bunch of turns, a few small hills, and some tree canopies before making the turn out to the top of the dam.

The view of the mountains was best along the top of the dam, and the evening light really made for some spectacular backgroups. I really wished I had carried my camera in the race so I could have gotten some shots of how pretty the scenery was. A few boats and a solitary water skier were still out on the water, and we probably watched them as much as they watched us jog along the dam. We made a quick turnaround at the catwalk to the intake and headed right back where we came. The glow lights showed up a little bit better as it got darker in the woody sections of the greenway, and it was definitely getting dark as we rounded the last few turns to get back into Clay County Recreational Park. The finish line and the pavilion were all lit up, and the PA announcer welcomed us all back in as we crossed the finish line. (Before the race, I got a little recognition for making it all the way out to Clay County as part of the countdown.) They had great organization to collect all the bib tags and churn out the men’s and women’s results very quickly. There was plenty to drink post-race and some snacks as well to get us re-hydrated because we were all pretty soaked because of the humidity – even the Hulk sweated off some of his green! There was great music, t-shirts, and even some good promotions for other races coming up in the mountains the rest of the year.

I really enjoyed getting to meet Dylan and the rest of the Chatuge gang, and I hope their weekly runs and get-togethers are very successful in building up the running club and achieving Dylan’s goal of getting more of Clay County up and exercising. They certainly have a great facility around Chatuge Lake, and a great foundation to build on with a wonderful inaugural 5k! I can’t wait to get back!

Polk County - Coon Dog Day 5k - July 7, 2012

Ever since finding out about the Coon Dog Day Festival in Saluda, North Carolina and its accompanied Coon Dog Day 5k race, I’ve wanted to be able to run it to visit Polk County and add it to the countdown. Polk County is south of Asheville, right against the South Carolina border, and in all our travels we had not visited there yet. Although the festival and the race had been around for a while, the 5k went away for a year or two before being resurrected by the Town of Saluda in 2011 – and unfortunately we weren’t able to attend. But when the 2012 race date was announced, we circled it with big red ink and made sure that the tour bus would visit it as part of the mountain running excursion.

Saluda, which is situated right inside the Polk County line, has been celebrating Coon Dog Day for 49 years! It started as a little chicken supper fundraiser, but today, in addition to the 5k race, they have a parade, live music all day, vendor booths, arts and crafts, royalty pageants for the kids, and more breakfasts and suppers! I’m a big fan of small towns and parades, so I was looking forward to the late-morning parade as much as I was for the morning’s 5k!

 The local law enforcement did a great job race morning of directing traffic into and out of Saluda. As one organizer said, there are only two roads into town, and we’re running on one of them! We could see the hills and inclines already as we were directed up to the Party Place and Event Center, where event parking and race packet pickup would be organized. They had all our race goodies and bibs organized into separate bags for us, so it was very easy to get my race shirt and get bibbed up. The race shirts were very, very pretty – nice white tech shirts with the beautiful Coon Dog Day 5k logo all over the front. Kudos to the artist that has designed the race logos each year since the 5k has been back – they are very colorful and eye-catching!

After packet pickup, we had a short walk back down the hill and across the main drag to the area where the start and finish lines were set up. There was a very good turnout for the race, with more than 150 folks pre-registered and probably some others that signed up race morning. (231 runners and walkers were listed in the results.)  Some folks looked like awfully fast runners, and others looked like folks who came out to walk and enjoy the mountain morning stroll through town. And there were at least three coon dogs out there to take part in the race with all the humans! The race director gave us some last-minute instructions right before the start; unfortunately, the first mile was going to be almost all uphill, and it would be rolling after that, but fortunately we would get most of that back as a downhill in most of the last mile. And we were going to get to run right through the festival as it was setting up.

As promised, the first mile was just about all uphill. It was a big struggle going up, up, up right from the start of the race with no opportunities to get into an even pace first. All the dogs passed me, too. The law enforcement that came over from Columbus, North Carolina did a great job handling the traffic that wanted to get onto the roads; they made sure the runners had a chance to get by first and didn’t wind up dodging a lot of cars. After what seemed like way more than a mile, we crested the top of the hills and were treated to a drink by some enthusiastic volunteers at a water stop. We got a treat with some downhills and more quick rolling inclines, and suddenly we made a left turn and were at the top of a hill looking down in to the main festival grounds (I recognized it from pictures). In addition to it being downhill, it was a hoot to run down the town’s main drag as vendors were setting up, parade veterans were reserving their viewing spots and setting out blankets and chairs, and as the first musicians of the morning were setting up their instruments. You couldn’t have had a better picture of a small-town holiday, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to make pictures. We ran through the whole parade route and out through the shuttle parking area, and then we passed by the Masonic lodge that was hosting the big Coon Dog Day Festival breakfast – ooh, it smelled good! That would have been tempting to stop right there. We made a couple more ups-and-downs before we made the last left-hand turn and started back down the hill to the finish line. That was a nice stretch after all the hills we had run, and I tried to keep rolling as best as I could. Finally we spotted the finish line ahead and saw all the runners that had finished milling around the area. There was lots of encouragement for us slower finishers, and a nice, cold bottle of water as well, which tasted awfully good on the uphill walk back to the Party Place for the post-run celebration.

Back at the Party Place, they set up a very impressive spread of watermelon, grapes, oranges, bananas, granola bars, cookies, and water and Gatorade for all the runners. The watermelon was awfully good and sweet – really hit the spot as the morning had warmed up a good bit since the start. I’m sure none of the runners went away hungry after getting to fill up at that party. I knew I wasn’t in the running for any of the awards, but I caught the shuttle back to the parade grounds to watch the 5k awards be passed out later in the morning, plus I hung out to watch the Coon Dog Day Festival parade come by. It was a delight to see the Shriners, the local business and politicians, some live music, and many funnel cake makers all contributing to a really nice morning. It was too bad I couldn’t stay for the evening square dancing in the streets, but I had to be running on. It was a lot of fun taking part in the Coon Dog Day 5k, but be aware that it’s a tough course with some serious hills on a hot morning – this dog bites!

Cherokee County - Firecracker 10k - July 4, 2012

Fortunately, with the temperatures around July Fourth hitting 100 degrees in many parts of North Carolina, it was noticeably cooler in the morning in the hills of Murphy, North Carolina, just inside the state line in Cherokee County. (It takes a special occasion, like some time at home with family in Tennessee, to make it easy to get to Cherokee County.) But the holiday morning traffic was easy and there was little difficulty finding Hiwassee Valley Pool & Wellness Center for the start of the race – it was one of the few places runner-looking people were congregating that morning!

The parking lot of the pool and wellness center, where we started and finished the race, may have been the only flat running stretch we saw all morning. Even while parking, I could see the first turn of the race was going to be up Hill Street. But the setup of the race was very nice; the center was next to a Murphy city park with softball fields (hosting a festival later in the day), tennis courts, a playground, and apparently part of the Murphy greenway system, including a bridge over the Valley River. But the course map showed that the greenway would not be part of our route; instead, we’d be headed out through city streets and along the farms just outside of town.

There was a good turnout for the race that morning, with a bit of a holdup at packet pickup because they wanted you to know your bib number, which those of us unable to attend Friday registration didn’t know. But eventually they found us all on the registration list and were able to check us in, bib us, and get us ready to go. The 10k event would start first, the 5k would follow fifteen minutes later, and there was also going to be a leisurely 2-mile walk for those folks who didn’t want to tackle either the 5k or the 10k. In keeping with the Independence Day and Firecracker themes, a replica cannon had been brought onto the site, and the cannon would be fired with a paper plug to start both races. We lined up somewhat tentatively at the front near the cannon, and when it thundered across the valley – sorry for anyone sleeping late for the holiday – we were off into the hills!

Although the first mile included some definite hills, we ran through a nice residential section of town, and many of the locals had decorated their homes for the holiday with red, white, and blue bunting and flags, and several of them had come out to the street to watch the holiday runners go by. One particular couple was wearing their July Fourth finest and cheered us as we streamed by their house. It was a very pretty neighborhood, and I was kind of sad when we made a turn that took us more on a route into the countryside. We did pass by some bucolic farms with horses checking out the runners. The race director had warned us that the course was not closed and that we might see some cars, dogs and horses on the road, and sure enough, about 1.5 miles in there was a friendly, very old dog sitting on the side of the road watching us jog by. At the halfway point of the 5k, there was a water station set up with very encouraging volunteers to tell us 10k runners that we had to keep on going, out to the far turnaround point.

We had one more hill to crest on Pleasant Valley Road, and then we had a nice, easy downhill stretch along Regal Road (great street names) to a final couple of bumps and the 10k turnaround point (and another water stop). I was jogging along with a youngster who was very proud telling me about his initial half-marathon last fall in Murphy and how everyone in his family was a runner – well, except for his sister. Because of the out-and-back nature of the course, I could see that he and I and two women were the four runners pretty much bringing up the rear of the race. We were all jogging along at about the same pace, with some fluctuations (I was slower on the hills).

With about a mile to go in the race, we made a turn that took us on a different route back to the finish than the neighborhood we had gone through earlier. This street was more industrial, so there was very little to see and no cheering from residents to get us through to the finish. As we made the last turn to head back to the wellness center, Junior and I were leading the group, and he pulled away at the end to win our little group, with me following up and the two ladies behind us. The 5k runners and all the 10k runners ahead of us did a great job cheering in all of us trailers, and it was really good to see the finish line and get done.

There was plenty of bottled water, fruit and cookies for the runners after the finish line, and one of the sponsors provided some wonderfully cool watermelon slices for us. The Murphy greenway was a great location to cool down, so I walked a good bit of it, checking out the river and the underpass to the softball fields while I munched on my watermelon. For such a hot stretch of weather, it really was a nice morning in the mountains. Just about the time I got back to the wellness center, the results were ready for announcing, and some very patriotic age group awards were handed out to the winners of both races and even for the folks in the walking event. 51 runners finished the 10k, and another 64 completed the 5k. What a great morning for the race, and what a pretty (if hilly) location in the mountains! Happy July Fourth!