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.