This race combined three of my favorite activities: mountain trail hiking, running, and rock climbing. Sure, they called it a "Trail Race," but there was enough vertical at some points to call it (in rock climbing terms) a 5.3 scramble. This third annual race in Taylorsville, North Carolina is not an easy access from major highways, but Rockyface Mountain Recreation Park is worth the journey. Beautiful view from the parking lot of the face as well as amazing views from up the mountain. The festival started with the 10k and 20k trail races at 8:30 a.m. and the Kurt Barkley 5k at 9:00 a.m. Vendors, artisans, food stands, musicians, free rock climbing clinics, and various inflatable bounce gyms (this race had me in mind!) started setting up while we started running and were in full swing by the end of the race.
The race was extremely well organized, which was a relief because we were probably the only participants who were doing this race "site unseen." Everyone was required to sign in before the race started. The race director had a large map display and explained the route thoroughly -- however, I could only remember him mentioning "Stairway to Heaven" as the difficult uphill part (more to come on that). Despite my poor route memory, they had the course well-staffed at every turn or intersection. Almost every course monitor was armed with a walkie-talkie and a cooler full of water bottles.
The race started out on the flat parking and picnic area, which gave a good quarter-mile to thin out the group before hitting the single-track trails. Once in the woods, it wasn't long until the route started climbing. Not too far into the first ascent, most everyone pulled ahead and out of sight. At the back, it was one very encouraging Doug Dawkins, Brad, me, and a woman who quickly dropped behind and out of sight. At the top of the first climb, shortly after the first mile completed, there was a check-in station. No need to stop, because the four course monitors read our bibs and radioed it to the race headquarters. And then we were on our own because Doug Dawkins kicked our butts on the downhill switchbacks. Every time we had another switchback, I could see him getting further ahead until he was out of sight.
And then we hit another incline, mountain top (well, I thought it was, but I discovered later I was wrong), and descent. And then another climb with a beautiful vista. We stopped and while enjoying the view (maybe also catching our breath), we decided to take a picture. Our photographer/course monitor, we discovered, was on the phone broadcasting about the race live through a local radio station. We were briefly unnamed stars of the broadcast! As we began our next descent over some very rocky and rooty turns, we were lapped by a gazelle who was later confirmed to be the leader of the 20k. I guess experience is your friend on this trail race (or maybe it's just being accustomed to trail racing in general) because I could only imagine myself getting some speed and soon thereafter kissing the dirt or breaking an ankle. Granted, I may just need a little more experience.
Then it came. Mile 4. As mile 4 started we hit an incline with a rope handrail. I asked the 12-year-old course monitor, "Is this the Highway to Heaven?" "Umm...yeah." OK great. That was survivable. Oh but alas, it was not. Not even close. Keep running and get ready because here comes the bald with what was more like a 5.3 scramble climb. The surface of the bald reminded me of Stone Mountain, NC -- lunar-like appearance. We ran up past the cones and cairn piles and then transversed the mountain side before entering a grove of trees. When I saw that I said, "Ok, I'm going to see if I can run this," thinking this steep incline ended at the trees. Off I went -- and I was wrong. THEN came the steep, long part. I still cannot figure out why someone thought "Stairway to Heaven" was an appropriate name for that. I could have thought of a number of other names -- and did say a few of them out loud (not in front of the course monitor) on my ascent. Brad and I took a...ah..err...photo break before entering the grove at the top. But wait! There's more! The trail continued at an incline, not as severe, once into the woods for a total of 611 feet ascent during all of mile 4 without any descent.
Two miles to go. The course looped us around part of the trail we ran earlier in the race with the same rocky, rooty downhill where we were again passed by the gazelle on his last loop through the 20k. As we exited out of the woods onto the final quarter-mile, we could see the top two 20k racers crossing the finish line.
Brad and I both finished our 10k just under 2 hours, which under normal circumstances would have been most embarassing. However, I was proud. I came out of that course on my feet with no scrapes, bruises or broken bones. The rush of completing a challenging course that had a total elevation gain of 1,127 feet, even if I didn't get a good time, was worth every minute.
For over a month, I thought Brad and I were the last to finish the 10k because I never saw the lady who dropped behind us on race day. I figured she'd dropped out and was long gone by the time we finished. Well, race results posted showed we weren't the last. She finished 30 minutes after we did. Kudos to you, unknown lady, who didn't quit either! You made it!
Finishers got a t-shirt that says, "I Survived the RockyFace Trail Run" and a medal. I'm not a fan of getting a medal for a race shorter than a half-marathon, but this one I'll keep. The race advertised that anyone who could finish the 10k under an hour or the 20k under two hours would get their entry fee back. It had not been done before. But this year, the top three of each race made it in under the time. Thankfully for the race, the runners were more interested in the bragging rights than the money back and I have a feeling the race director will change that policy for next year.