Saturday, July 23, 2016

Gaston County - Gastonia Grizzlies 5k - July 22, 2016

In my continuing tour of counties Chad already beat me to, this week's Friday evening run was at Sims Legion Park in Gastonia, North Carolina, for one of Gaston County's best races, the 4th annual Gastonia Grizzlies 5k!  The Gastonia Grizzlies are a summer collegiate baseball team in the Coastal Plain League, and the owners of the team are very good at incorporating interesting events and family fun into each game evening, and having the 5k each summer in conjunction with the local YMCA makes for a great family doubleheader with running and baseball!

We had no trouble finding Sims Legion Field -- it's within sight of interstate 85 as you head north -- and the organizers, both the Grizzlies staff and the YMCA staff, were up and running well before the main throng of runners arrived to check in.  Each runner got a nice race t-shirt along with a ticket to the game in their packet.  Since they've done this race a few years, they had the organization down and runners got all the information they needed, including where to get ready to enter the field for the race start.  Plus, as a YMCA event, they were very welcoming to slow runners, walkers, and strollers.

The race was emceed by Jesse Cole, the owner of the Grizzlies, and obviously quite a showman in his canary-yellow tuxedo for each game.  He directed the runners onto the field, where a pre-race invocation was held, and then we got organized in the foul territory just past third base, were a starting line sign had been placed.  Jesse gave us a few more directions about the race route, and then we were off!  We began by running right down the third base line -- there were 140 runners and walkers listed in the results -- across home plate, and then out the field gate, across the concourse, and out into the parking lot, where we followed the outside fence of the stadium to an adjacent street and then down the hill to the Highland Rail Trail greenway, a rails-to-trails project that converted part of the old Carolina and Northwestern Railway.

The volunteers did an outstanding job controlling traffic around the runners, whether it was sealing off part of the parking lot so that we had no incoming vehicle traffic to dodge, or blocking the streets around the greenway crossings so that we had free run of the street.  (Thanks also to Gastonia's Finest for their traffic control; again, very well organized by the event directors.)  The greenway is just over 1.5 miles in length, and we ran almost all the way down it, turned around, and headed back.  The greenway definitely had an uphill grade all the way out, but it did provide a lot of shade and some relief from the heat, plus we got to see all the runners at both turnarounds and encourage everyone on.  I was very, very relieved to get to the far turnaround and know that it was majority downhill back down the greenway, but I had burned out so much getting to the turnaround that the imagined burst of speed never materialized on the way back down.  But there were a couple of water stations along the way with enthusiastic volunteers that gave us some wonderfully chilled water.

Once we turned back off the greenway, we retraced our steps back up a short hill to the stadium and followed the fenceline once more to the concourse entrance, where we crossed through the arriving crowd plus Grizzlies mascot Chizzle and back onto the field.  For the last quarter-mile or so of the race, we moved through the warming-up Grizzlies players down the first-base line and then all they way around the outfield wall to the third-base line, and back down it just the way we started to the finish line at home plate.  With the arriving baseball fans and sizeable crowd, there was lots of cheering for the finishing runners, and then we had the run of the infield as we enjoyed orange slices and water in front of the visitors' dugout, took pictures, and hung out for the awards, which were nice medals for the overall winners and the top three in each age group.  Sadly, though, we eventually had to clear the field to make way for the baseball game, but there were some great burgers, brats and drinks at the concession stands to provide our dinner! 

The Grizzlies had their third sell-out of the season with the 5k promotion, and the team went on for a 3-2 walkoff victory to boot!  The organization of the race was excellent, and it was a very nice race course, and I especially liked getting to run around the stadium!  I'll need to be in better shape for the grade of the greenway next year, but I'm really hoping we'll get to come back and run with the Grizzlies again in the future.  It was a great trip to Gaston County!

Montgomery County - Peachy Feeet 5k - July 15, 2016

Chad also beat me to Montgomery County way back when, but I got peach ice cream when I went!  North Carolina food festivals have been good to us in the countdown, including the Blueberry Festival 5k, the Strawberry Festival 5k, the Peanut Run 5k, and the Watermelon Festival 5k, to name a few that we attended (plus some others that we missed out on).  The 20th annual North Carolina Peach Festival in Candor, North Carolina in Montgomery County also has the 6th annual Peachy Feet 5k, and that's where Kathy and the baby and I ended up a few Friday evenings ago (it's only a short drive from home).

We had never attended the Peach Festival before, but it's definitely worth returning.  When we arrived (cutting the schedule close), there was music and dancing, vendors with all kinds of food and crafts, and lots of folks out in lawn chairs enjoying the evening and the atmosphere.  We hurried through race check-in as the national anthem was sung, and then the race was off!  We were definitely safe in the back of the pack as we hurried into the starting chute, but the race volunteers didn't seem to mind, as the race is very friendly to slow runners, walkers, and even strollers.

As you might guess from the topography in the area, it was a very flat race and led to some fast times among the 200+ finishers.  The course was roughly figure-eight shaped, with a shared road in the middle but with loops on the ends big enough that the leaders and trailers didn't really share the road at the same time.  There were lots of friendly volunteers on the course, who both encouraged all the participants and did some excellent traffic control, managing to keep things freely moving even for those of us who got onto the course late.  There were also some dark clouds rolling in at the start of the race, and as the first few sprinkles turned into a downpour, the volunteers also made sure we stayed positive and didn't decide to drop out because of the weather.  (Even if we had wanted to drop, there was really nowhere to go but continue along the course.)  The route was through a residential area, and it was very clear the folks living along the route knew the race was coming, and many of them were out in their yards or on their spacious porches to see the runners go by and cheer them on.  Some of the homes were quite impressive and looked like they had a lot of history in them, plus the oversize wraparound porches gave them plenty of shelter as they watched the poor, wet souls running by.  The last stretch of the race was along the main drag of Candor, and then we wrapped around behind the festival, so that we finished going through the same arch in the same direction that we had started.

Of course, just as I finally finished, the skies really opened up, and what had been a regular ol' rain became a frog-choking monsoon.  The spectators had already scattered to the tents and shelters where the food and music were, but a very hardy cheer team and some waterlogged volunteers kept the finish line area active with cheers and water and post-race food and drink, including some wonderful homemade peach ice cream!  Talking with some of the other runners after the race, including Mark Long from the Mangum Track Club, this was a 180-degree turn from last year's conditions, which were painfully hot.  So next year maybe they'll split the difference?

Unfortunately, with our late arrival and being drenched after the finish, we didn't take a lot of pictures, but fortunately the race organizers shared a nice album with us on Facebook.  And the race organizers created some very nice, very colorful race shirts for all the participants.  In spite of everything this year, I really would like to come back and take part in this race again, to experience more of the Friday evening festival activities, enjoy that flat race course again, and get plenty more helpings of the peach ice cream!  Can't wait to come back to Montgomery County!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Guilford County - Moonlight Bootlegger 5k - July 9, 2016

Chad made it to Guilford County, just a quick drive over from home, many years ago, but for some reason it took me a while to work around to visit this nearby county for a race (not for a lack of trying; I did register for one race but that trip fell through).  At any rate, I was glad to finally get to visit Guilford County and get to run an interesting race there.

The Moonlight Bootlegger 5k is a race series themed around the old moonshine legends, of bootleggers high-tailing it down country roads and trails at night to avoid the Revenuers.  To evoke that Prohibition-Era theme, the Bootlegger folks stage evening trail races in country settings with "moonshine" drinks as a post-race treat.  This race in Pleasant Garden at Hagen-Stone Park was one of eight races being organized around the southeast and midwest this year.

It was no problem getting to Hagen-Stone Park early Saturday evening, where the pre-race preparations were in full swing.  My friends Charles and Blanca were part of the volunteer contingent that had checked and cleared the course and put out tealights to help mark the route.  All the runners were required to have a headlamp and/or a flashlight as well.  Check-in was no problem, were we all got nice race shirts and were advised about where the moonshine drinks would be available once we finished.  And there was a good bluegrass band playing on the stage to entertain all the runners who had arrived early and were just hanging out until the race started.  They had also set up the finish line chute and banner just a few steps over from the stage.  Eventually the race directors appeared on stage for some last-minute directions and information, and then all the runners walked en masse about a quarter-mile into the park where the starting line was set up.

There were four waves of runners in all to keep the congestion on the trail down.  (Charles was in wave one, I was in wave three -- safe in the back of the pack.)  It was just starting to get dusky for this 8:55 p.m. start, so they did a good job evoking that "moonlight" theme.  In addition, they had a drone flying over the start area, and they got some good video of all the start waves with it.  After watching both the early waves start, my group was ushered into the starting chute, and once we were ready to go, it was off into the woods!

The first part of the race passed by a lake and then entered one of the park system's trails in the woods.  The first mile had a lot of switchbacks in it, so with everyone wearing or carrying lights, you could sort of gauge where we were going next and hear all the runner conversations.  Even in the dark, the route was very well marked, with tealights along the ground and tape and strobe lights blocking the trail segments we were not supposed to take.  There were a few places where I had to look hard to spot the next tealight in the distance, but for the most part the lights were close enough together that we didn't struggle.  The trail was in good shape as well; I snagged my foot a couple of times on roots or rocks or small animals, but I was in a nice, easy pace and none of them brought me down.

The mile markers were indicated by speakers in the woods playing bluegrass, which was an unusual touch, and there was one water station about halfway through were volunteers were handing out water.  But they were just about the only volunteers we saw on the course, other than one volunteer who indicated the route as we passed another lake in the last mile.  And there weren't any tough elevation changes in the route, so it turned out to be a very nice, easy run through the woods and would probably be a very relaxing training run in the daylight.

Near the end we skirted the border of another lake and did a few more switchbacks, and then we went around the perimeter of the clearing where all the pre-race festivities had been held and where the finish chute was set up.  (We had been able to hear the noise and cheering for a bit.)  Although it had been hot and humid before the race, it was a bit cooler on the trail, and coming back to the clearing gave us a chance to get breezes again.  After some quick hydration, I got in line for my "moonshine" drinks, which were served in a great glass intended to look like a Mason jar.  Since it was a city park, I would have been surprised if it was real moonshine, but whatever they had added to the "cherry coke" and "peach tea" drinks to make them "moonshine" drinks was OK.

They did a great job executing the theme of the race and adding lots of touches throughout the event to build that theme.  More than 200 runners took part!  The night run aspect was very unique, and I very much enjoyed the bluegrass music along with the very nice race shirt and my post-run drinks!  I hope the Moonlight Bootlegger 5k will be coming by my area again next year!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Alleghany County - Freedom 5k - July 2, 2016

The Fourth of July is always a good opportunity to find a race, as many communities and counties that don't have much in the way of running activity during the year find a way to put on a great Independence Day run.  Plus, it's easy to take vacation around a long weekend.  We've had good luck collecting counties around July Fourth, such as the Firecracker 10k in Cherokee County and the Brevard Firecracker 10k in Transylvania County.  This worked out well for us in finding a good race in tiny Alleghany County up in the northwest corner of the state, and with it being a holiday weekend, we spent the majority of the weekend in the mountains.

The Freedom 5k is organized by the Blue Ridge Christian School in Glade Valley, just a little south of the county seat of Sparta.  The school has previously organized a set of fall races, the Mountain Heritage 5k/10k, but this year they opted to organize just the 5k as a July Fourth race.  This was a county we had been trying to collect for a while, and I have to credit president Donny McCall for giving me good information about their schedule so that we could make sure we collected this county. 

We arrived race morning and checked in early to receive our bibs, race numbers, and race packets that included our t-shirts, notes about the sponsors, pens, and a "save the date" reminder for next year.  (Kathy was going to walk the 5k with Junior while I ran.)  All the volunteers handling packet pickup and raceday registration in the school's main level were very helpful, very excited, and glad to see all of the runners that had made the trip to support the school and see some of the county.  There was a very nice spread of water and fruit for the runners both pre- and post-race to enjoy.

Before the race, Kathy and I had the delight of meeting Donna, the very first groupie for Chad and Brad's 100-County Countdown.  In casual conversation about the race, Donna asked where we were from, and when she heard the story about collecting all the North Carolina counties, she paused, thought a moment, and said, "I've heard of you!"  Turns out Donna is collecting all the NC counties as well (she's based in the mountains and most of her 33 counties are in that area), and while looking for a race in Jones County happened to come across our race report from the Knight's Run 5k in this very same blog!  We had a great time talking about running around the Old North State, and hopefully we'll be able to help Donna find races in some far-flung counties and follow her on her excursion as well!

Six very impressive youngsters finished the kids' mile in good form, and then 30 to 40 runners and walkers lined up to start the 5k.  It was a two-loop course.  We got off to a great, fast downhill start, as we ran down past the front of the school and an assembly building and continued into the shade.  It was a clear, sunny morning, but in the shady spots, it was comfortably cool and quite enjoyable for a run.  Most of the first half-mile was in that downhill start, where we made a loop around a local cemetery and then progressed partway back up the hill.  Then we made a sharp turn back onto the school's property and the race became a trail run through a small bit of woods and then into a switchback pattern mowed into the school's backyard.

It was much more sunny on the back property, and we went back and forth many times in the switchbacks, a process Kathy labeled the "conveyor oven" as we baked on each back-and-forth.  It could well have been a great cross-country course if the school ever organizes one, and it was a very pretty, but hot, setting for the race.  Once we finished covering the backyard property, we followed the playground area back to the road at the top of the hill, and then we were off for the second loop!

They had a water stop set up for the runners as we began the second loop, and that water was mighty tasty after finishing the sunny switchbacks, plus the downhill part of the course back to the cemetery and its shade were much appreciated as well.  The volunteers did a great job pointing out the route to the runners and keeping us on course.  The second time back up the hill and the second time through the sunny switchbacks were tough on my old legs, but the switchbacks allowed us to see where we stood in the "field" as we had a good view of runners both behind us and in front of us. 

Finally we were back on the road and coasting to a nice, easy downhill finish.  There were lots of volunteers and spectators welcoming back the runners, and as soon as everyone was back, president McCall got right to the awards, with yours truly collecting an age-group second in the race!  The awards were very nice fired clay medals that the BRCS students had made themselves to thank the runners.  We hung around for a little while after the race to talk more about the area and the running opportunities, and hopefully we'll be able to use that "save the date" note to return for the Freedom 5k in a future year!  Thanks to president McCall, all of his staff and volunteers, and all the runners for making our trip to Alleghany County so much fun!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Rockingham County - Band on the Run 5k - April 9, 2016

Chad beat me to Rockingham County many years ago -- but then again, it is his home county, so that's not surprising.  But I was glad to get a chance to visit and be a part of a fundraiser for the Rockingham County Middle School band, namely the Band on the Run 5k.  The registration materials encouraged the runners to dress as their favorite instrument or musical artist, but race morning was very, very cold with a stiff wind, so I'm guessing most of the costumes were waived in favor of warmer running gear.  There was one gal who appeared to be one of the Pink Ladies from "Grease", but even she covered up in extra layers over her poodle skirt.

It was no problem getting to Rockingham Middle (home of the Jaguars) in the morning and finding packet pickup (and pre- and post-race refreshments) in the school cafeteria.  The packet pickup was very well organized; once they knew who you were, they looked you up on the master list, told you your bib number, and then you grabbed a pre-filled goodie bag with that bib number affixed to it.  The race t-shirts had been designed by a former student, and it was cold enough that many runners wore their race shirt as an extra layer against the breeze.  There was plenty of room in the cafeteria to hang out before the race, and some of the physical education instructors led a big group through some warmup exercises and calisthenics in the adjoining gymnasium.

Finally, though, we had to leave the warm cafeteria and go back out into the breeze for the start.  One of Rockinham County's Sheriff deputies gave the runners instructions on the route, which side of the roads to run on, and where the other deputies would be stationed for traffic control.  The band director did a quick pepping up of the band members -- "who's faster? the woodwinds or the brass" -- and then we were off, while I was thinking to myself, "well actually, it's the percussion!"

The middle and high schools are built side-by-side on a very large tract of land, so by circling the property, we actually covered almost a mile just getting back out to the main road.  And most of that first stretch was all uphill, which of course got those young whippersnappers who started sprinting right from the start of the race.  Sure enough, the deputies were right where they were supposed to be, keeping traffic on highway 87 stopped for the half-mile or so before we turned onto a secondary road and then into the Rockingham County government complex.  We passed the Board of Elections and the Animal Shelter, and then we made a quick loop around the far parking lot before heading back the same way we had some.  There was a nice downhill stretch leading to the turnaround, which just meant we had to go back up it on the way out.  But the aid station and the water and the encouraging volunteers were much appreciated as we tacked the return trip.

Before too long it seemed we were back entering the school property, and since I knew we had mostly downhill stretches leading back to the start/finish area, I tried to pick up the pace somewhat and take advantage of the downhills.  However, a couple of other runners had fresher legs than me and passed me just as we got the finish line area in sight.  (The wind had blown down the start/finish arch after we had left, so we had to run to where it used to be.)  Quickly we jogged around the parking lot, across the timing mats, and then back into the cafeteria to get out of the wind!

They had a very nice post-race spread of refreshments, including chips, pretzels, fruit and 32-ounce jugs of Gatorade, which was very much appreciated.  You have to give credit both to the kids who kept running and finished all three miles, and to the adults who came out and walked on a cold, windy day to support the program.  After allowing enough time for all the participants to finish the course, they gave out some very nice trophies as awards for overall winners and age-group winners.  I was somewhat surprised but very delighted to win my age group!  Find me a small enough race, and I can still win my group!

It was a lot of fun getting to visit Chad's homeland, and he gave me a very good suggestion to stop at Short Sugar's BBQ on the way out for an early lunch.  I had a great time running and supporting the Rockingham County Middle School band, and I hope their Band on the Run 5k continues to be such a fun race!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Camden County - Sunshine 8k - March 5, 2016

By any measure, Camden County, North Carolina is a small place.  It ranks 96th in population (10,052) among North Carolina’s 100 counties, it’s 93rd in land area square miles (240.5 square miles), which leads to it being 91st in population density (only 40 people per square mile).  And if anyone’s figuring the number of races per county, it must also rank pretty low, because I’ve been looking for a race there for more than a few years with no luck.  Fortunately, though, some race organizers have discovered the beauty, convenience and sheer flatness of the hiking and biking trail along the Dismal Swamp Canal, in the Dismal Swamp State Park that dominates the northwest corner of the county, and a few races per year have popped up so that we finally have a chance to run this county.

The Dismal Swamp Canal, completed in 1805, was the first connection of the Albemarle Sound in the Carolinas to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.  The hiking and biking trail, added in more recent years, gives pedestrians and cyclists an almost perfectly flat and straight 3-mile route alongside the canal and US 17.  The Sunshine Survivors Suicide Prevention and Awareness group picked the Dismal Swamp State Park Welcome Center as the start/finish area for the Sunshine 4k and 8k, both out-and-back runs along the canal trail.

The race organizers were blessed with sunny and cool running conditions for the race, and the crowd that gathered for race was in good spirits, too.  Kathy and I talked with a couple from New Jersey that were there as part of Team Red, White, and Blue, a veterans support organization that we have worked with as beneficiaries of races back in Raleigh.  One of the Sunshine Survivors team handed out small cardboard “sunshines” to the runners who wanted to memorialize or honor friends who had been affected by suicide, and these sunshines were hung on the branches of the trees around the start/ finish line.  Black t-shirts with a bold sunshine design were available to the runners as well.
Both races started together, so we all got lined up and pressed forward when we took off.  Unfortunately, one runner diverted around the start/finish arch to avoid the crowd of humanity, and accidentally ran into one of the support lines, resulting in a very slow collapse of the arch.  However, no one was injured or hit by it, and they had it restored and back in place by the time we returned.

The water in the canal was smooth as glass in the morning, and it made for some lovely water views as we ran south, into the wind and the early morning sun.  I hoped we might see some wildlife from the swamp area, but a solo hawk and a pair of ducks were the only wildlife I spotted.  Some of the trees were just beginning to bud and leaf, and it will be a very pretty run in a few weeks when more of the spring blooms are out.  And it was almost perfectly flat (my Garmin would later show only 3 feet of elevation gain, most of which probably came on the one footbridge over a canal creek).  

Some enthusiastic volunteers were running a water stop at the 4k turnaround, and they encouraged us 8k runners as we got refreshment and then kept going down the trail.  The trail does make a few turns around particularly big trees, so it’s not perfectly straight, but for long stretches you could look way ahead and back to see where everyone was.  And periodically the trail would pop out of the woods and be alongside US 17, probably designed that way for easy access in case of emergency.  You could definitely feel the wind whenever we came out of the shelter among the trees.

More volunteers greeted us at the 8k turnaround near the southern terminus of the trail, and we made the 180-degree turn and headed back north, this time with the wind and sun behind us.  By this time, the few 8k runners were very spread out, and in the return trip north, I only interacted with one or two other runners that I passed or who passed me.  The smaller size of the race in this park locale gave you more opportunities to appreciate the scenery and natural setting without feeling overwhelmed by runners.

Eventually we returned to the welcome center, and the organizers led a very vocal group supporting and welcoming each runner as they crossed the finish line.  There was a nice post-race spread of fruit and water for the runners, and the top men and women finishers in each race received a cute Sunshine mug in which a small plant was growing.  The post-race sunshine and warming temps allowed for more socializing with the other runners after the race along the canal.  36 runners completed the 4k, and 33 more finished the 8k.

I’m very glad we finally made it up to this historic and beautiful corner of North Carolina, where George Washington himself visited back in the 1700s.  Congrats to the Sunshine Survivors for putting on a great run and for bringing folks to this wonderful natural setting!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

2015 Year in Review

2015 was another year where the calendar controlled how many counties we could get; we did luck into opportunities to check off some smaller counties, but as we get down to the toughest ones, we kind of have to wait around for races to come back around.

Brad's new counties in 2015 (4): Madison, Alexander, Transylvania, Caswell
Chad's total counties: 42
Brad's total counties: 86
Combined total counties: 96

It is possible, with some favorable scheduling and spare knees, that we could reach the end of the countdown in 2016. But we'll need to be ready to run and have some schedules, including baby deliveries, break in our favor. Whether we finish in 2016 or not, we're looking forward to running some more of the Old North State!