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I could have been ninth!

Continental Divide USATF 10K Trail Championships, Laurel Springs NC

Saturday was a big day for crazy running pal, motherjoggerblogger Andrea, and I. We hit the road and headed northward to Laurel Springs, NC for the Continental Divide USATF 10km trail championships. There were going to be some super dedicated and talented athletes running this course and we were going to be trudging along in their footsteps. The preceding week I’d enjoyed spending a fair while online checking out exactly whose backs would soon be a distant blur as they charged up the track ahead of me. It was just a little intimidating:

Gina Lucrezi – A hardcore mountain/trail runner and member of Team Inov8. Gina hit Laurel Springs fresh from winning all six of the 2010 New England Mountain Circuit Races and finishing second OA at the USA 15 km Trail Championships in Spokane, WA. She crossed the finish line at the Continental Divide in third last year and was out for revenge in 2010.
Annette Bednosky – Annette is an ultra runner on the Montrail ultra running team and as such is usually to be found running super long distances with tremendous results. Annette is not in her element on such short races as the 10k, but still consistently flys down the trail and is super scary.
Amber Moran – Another cracking member of the Inov8 running team, one of her goals for 2010 was to place in the top 3 at the USATF 10K trail championships. (*on the day Amber did not actually run for some reason)
Molly Nunn – 26 year old speed demon racking up some impressive results on the road that quite frankly terrified me.

The prospect of rubbing shoulders with such inspiring female talent, combined with the race billing as “one of the toughest trail races in the southeast,” topped with having to sign a registration disclaimer warning about rattlesnakes and bears and certain death made this an absolute “must do” race.

The course has no flat portions, and few gentle slopes. Most descents are between 9 and 15 percent steep, and one 150 metre section is a gut-wrenching 28.5 degree drop. Most climbs are about 10 degrees steep, although a quarter mile climb just before the midway point is 18.5 degree, and another near the finish competitors face a 22 degree incline that extends for a quarter mile. The last segment includes “The Rock Climb,” a 20 yard section that has most competitors looking for a good handhold.” Charlotte Endurance Magazine.

Sounds like a rollocking good time doesn’t it? I was excited.

With fortuitous luck Andrea’s parents happen to own a little cabin which, if you also happened to have a very good arm and aim, was a mere lob of a stone from the Moravian Camp where the race was to be held. The cabin was charming, rustic and very comfortable, but lacking in one small creature comfort. That would be running water. Not a problem at all for two intrepid, happy and blissfully, albeit temporarily, child free souls eager for adventure, but the thought of how we were going to make our evening carb load, and do the washing up afterwards, did make the pasta pre race dinner that much more enticing.

After our drive from Charlotte up, up, up into the ominously big and looming mountains, (and steep, did I mention steep yet? Oh yes, they were steep. My ears popped as we wound our way up to Laurel Springs.) we arrived late to the pasta party and awkwardly shuffled into the lodge to be confronted by a relaxed crowd of fit looking running folks wearing impressive race tees who were already chowing down on pasta mountains out of ginormous salad bowls and knocking elbows with bad ass friends decked out in similarly impressive ultra running and racing team wear.

We felt a little out of place in our harassed mother of crazy children clothes. In Andrea’s case, preschool t-shirt and all. Here is Team ODS, Open Door School. So professional that half the team doesn’t even own the correct t-shirt.

After forcing some pasta down into an increasingly nervous and vocally dissenting tummy, and stealing glances at our fellow competitors, Andrea and I decided to go poke around the grounds and try to get our bearings for the course. We followed some orange tape hanging from the trees into a gently enough named “Apple Orchard Trail” and were confronted with some fairly formidable narrow single track. It calmed my nerves to gain a taste of what we would be up against in the morning. This section felt more sinister than our usual haunts though really I don’t think it was too dissimilar. As the light faded beneath the trees the trail seemed to laugh evilly and threaten that a single wrong foot would send us plummeting down the mountain side. The slender goat path had no buffer against the side of the mountain. One little wrong footed spill would pretty much see Team ODS taking a good tumble to the valley far below. The USNWC tracks aren’t too different, but they feel more enclosed and although the paths can be narrow along the edge of steep drops there tends to be a strip of vegetation and trees along both sides which give a sense of security against actually toppling off the trail. Here there was much more of a feeling of a patiently waiting sheer drop and impending doom.

It looked like fun.

With darkness falling and my headlamp usefully packed away in the car we curtailed our recce and scurried back to the cabin to eat pints of ice cream, and rest up.

The next morning we awoke to a blanket of thick fog enveloping us. It was impossible to see through the grey mirk to where the valley and road to the race were supposed to be. Wisps of heavy fog still hung around even as we approached the race site, but suddenly the veil magically lifted as 9am struck and the men’s race gun sounded.

The race was run in two waves. The men got to charge off down the trail first. The stream of eager feet gallantly clearing the path of snakes, bears and cobwebs, and chewing the trail up nicely for us ladies to follow. In return for their generosity we endured the higher temperatures that started to quickly beat down on the gathered runners come our witching hour of quarter past ten. It was up to a steamy 80 degrees fahrenheit by the time the race director got through detailing course instructions to us.

With the men waved off into the woods we had over an hour to fiddle around so Andrea and I headed to find the bathroom and on our climb back up the hill to the start we hit the first waves of male competitors gasping their way up to the top for the next attack of the course clover leaf. The pain in their eyes and anguished faces had me worried. The men should have only been maybe a mile, mile and a half into the race and yet many of them looked beaten already. I yelled at the fellas to smile and at least make me believe that it was easy. “C’mon chaps!”

At this point I decided that maybe it was about time to try to actually focus on the task at hand and get a warm up run in. I could feel my competitive drive fading and needed to try to focus to harness it back in. Afterall, I did intend to attempt more than a mere stroll through the woods. It was hard to work out where to really do this efficiently and I ended up just running a few laps along the roads, cruising along behind Annette Bednosky for part of it as she reined in the warmup miles herself. At several points I crossed paths with the mens’ race and I’d stop and cheer at some more gasping gents as they performed their serpentine dance on the trails and looped around the central hill top hub of the start/finish line.

By the time I returned up the hill myself I had missed the lead male runners driving home. Doh. My only chance to see the speedsters through the finish line and I blew it.

With all the men safely out of the woods it was time for the women to let loose. We gathered at the start line, me feeling very out of place, insecure and like an awkward foal among a paddock of race horses. The running superstars in our midst got introductory shout outs over the tannoy. I found myself stood at the front of the pack next to Gina Lucrezi, feeling pretty sure this would be my only chance to take a good look at her. She turned and beamed a self assured “Good luck everyone!” to all the other women before focussing on the trail ahead with a confident smile and determination. She was very nice and meant it genuinely, but she may as well have said “Don’t go breaking anything ladies, I’ll wait for you at the other end.”

The gun shrilled and the pack charged off, me with them. The first mile went fast. I did a 7:30 minute mile. Yowser! It felt great. All the while as we ploughed down the hill and through some easy terrain I was confused and curious as to why the gents had seemed so battered as they left this leg of the race behind.

Somewhere after this first mile though my race resolve just melted away and although I was feeling good I mentally pulled back. Annette Bednosky eased past me and I locked onto her back as she pulled away from me for a while, but I just couldn’t convince myself to go all out. Inexperience won and doubts about maintaining pace and pushing hard for the full duration won. I had been resolved to all out race this six mile test and leave everything I’d got on the trails, but come race day my mind decided that I wasn’t game for the challenge and reverted back to long distance endurance hard run walk up the hills mode. I’m a touch aggravated with myself about this. As soon as I hit the first grassy uphill I was saving my legs for the rest of the run. No problem over a long distance, but not a great tactic for a 10k! The problem was the hills were long and plentiful and there were no really good stretches with which to gain ground. The race description didn’t lie. It was a bit like running the Twisted Ankle trail race’s notorious Becky’s Bluff over and over and over again for six miles, except harder.

Mind you, I did get complimented afterwards for how quickly I can scale a hill even while walking. I was told that it was disheartening that I didn’t even seem to break pace, kept a fast turn over and was probably hiking up the ascents faster than those behind me were attempting to run them. Oh yeah! That made me feel better.

All too soon the miles of fire road, grass, roots and rocks were behind me and I could feel the last leg of the race within my grasp. I was chasing two ladies up yet another grassy hill before diving down into the Apple Orchard Trail for a burst of technical trails on the home stretch when I spotted a familiar floral running skirt cresting the top and taking the descent down towards the lake. “Andrea!” I yelled, she waved, I waved, and bounced and yelled back some more. Brilliant! Catching a glimpse of her out on the trail having fun gave me a nice boost. I was having a great time. I don’t think I stopping grinning the entire way. As I ran past one group of spectators I was told that they hadn’t seen many smiles coming up the hill on the trail! It was exhilarating.

Image courtesy of Mary Shannon Johnstone and Anthony Corriveau

I really enjoyed the final narrow single track as I crashed back down the mountain and swung myself around trees to spin around tight switch backs while ploughing through slippy sticky thick peaty mud and hurdling roots. At this point I was nicely warmed up and kicking into gear, but striding along right up behind a couple of other runners. Despite my requests (maybe they just didn’t hear me?) to pass I was stuck behind them running their pace right up until the final “rock climb” ascent. Far above we could begin to hear the sounds of cheering. At the top of the climb a few spectators crouched and basked in our pain while we hauled tired and screaming bodies up the brutal rocky section until we conquered the ascent and were spat out victorious into the clearing above. All that was left now was a tough but wide and clear run up the final hill to the finish. I took off like a rabbit, determined to make it count and leave the two women I had been doggedly following chasing me.

Kay Allen placed 10th, completing the course in 1 hour 5 mins 15 secs.

Sadly though you won’t see me in any of the top ten women finisher pictures as I am neither a USATF member or an American citizen so was ineligible to place. I’m a little sore about not even getting a shout out and acknowledged as having been in the top ten finishers though, even if I did squeak in at the end. It put a little bit of a downer on an otherwise fantastic morning out on the trails.

27 year old Gina Lucrezi blew through the course and finished first with a blistering time of 52:04. Molly Nunn was a valiant second with 53:30.

If that seems slow for a 10k then you should consider that “A runner who covers 10 flat kilometers (6.2 miles) in 45 minutes would likely need an hour or more to finish the Continental Divide 10-kilometer trail race on Aug. 28 in Laurel Springs, N.C” WSJ

And why could I have been ninth? Well, as Andrea and I were driving through the fog to the race that morning we rounded a blind bend in the road and almost drove straight into none other than super amazing ultra runner Annette Bednosky out on a warm up run. She later finished in fourth place, first ladies’ masters, with a time of 58:07 and I’m really very incredibly glad that we didn’t knock her out of the running! Phew. That would have been awkward.

Bib, shoes and pretty glass finisher's medal.

2 thoughts on “I could have been ninth!”

  1. I’m sad I decided to skip this but with the nerve issue in my right foot I didn’t want to chance it. Time to just focus on Medoc. You did an awesome job! Hopefully next year I will have myself together and can do it.

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