The worst part is it was my own fault. I completely underestimated despite having been to Pilot Mountain, knowing the area, seeing the elevation profile... Still, I thought, "Yeah, but come on- it's not the real mountains." "Yeah, but come on- I go to State Parks all the time. The trails are usually wide with no rocks. They say this course is rocky. Yeah right." And the most arrogant of all, ""Yeah, but come on- it's just a marathon. I've done 100 milers, run Mt. Mitchell, run hour upon hour on the Appalachian Trail... this will be nothing." I honestly expected a well-manicured crushed gravel path for most of the course. There was about a mile or two of that & it was a pretty decent climb. Looking at the profile, I expected miles 9, 11 & 12 to be tough, but thought everything before that was gradual uphill & gradual downhill. I could not have been more wrong. I am an idiot for thinking otherwise.
Pilot Mountain Payback is the hardest race I've ever run under 50K. It's way harder than Black Mountain Marathon (if both are run in equal conditions). And, I'm going to say something here that people who have run MMC will shudder at, but without the incredibly harsh conditions at Mt. Mitchell, I don't think the Mt. Mitchell is significantly harder than Pilot Mountain. WHAT?! Hear me out. Pilot Mountain is 4500' of elevation gain over a marathon. Mt. Mitchell is 4300' over 40 miles. Though there are some steep ones for sure, most of the climb at Mt. Mitchell is long and gradual. The Toll Road there is completely runnable. There were several hills at Pilot Mountain that were too steep for me to run. Mt. Mitchell has a scrambly rock section you (or at least I) can't run. Pilot Mt. does too. I see those sections as breaks more than actually being hard. Mt. Mitchell was has had incredibly brutal weather & running it, I've wondered about survival, which was never even close to crossing my mind yesterday, but the courses themselves on equal conditions... I just don't think Pilot Mountain is a joke by any means. Eh, maybe I'm just out of shape & maybe the last race is always the hardest, so my judgment could be clouded on this, but I dunno.
There was supposed to be a wintery mix during the race. It snowed pretty hard as a I drove up, but we only got a little snow at the beginning and no rain. So glad there was no rain. Cold rain is the worst. ...but we did get wet. I got to see my good friend of 25 years, Brendan Gannon. I have run with his brother Konrad many times, but first race Brendan & I have been in together since the State XC Meet of 1988!
50 meters into the race, you cross the first of 12 water crossings. Nice way to start. Even nicer was a steep climb on the other side. 1 minute into the race & I'm gasping for air. Great. At this point I was very conscious of how many people were ahead of me. A year ago, I would've tried to place Top 5 in this race. I was still in that mindset. I know I'm not in Top 5 shape, but was shooting for top 25 out of 100 or so. The whole first 8 miles to the real climbing was a series of ups & downs. Again, not what I expected at all. No flats. For the first 4 miles, I'd run at a decent pace up the hills, maxing my HR out and then instead of recovering on the downhill, I'd push it & hit the next uphill, the whole time, very aware of who passed me & who I passed.
After 4 miles, I literally stopped in the middle of the trail, let a group pass & had to tell myself, "Relax. Have fun. Run within yourself. You've just run a 4 mile tempo run. You can't keep that up." From then on, I did just that. Started talking to people. Appreciated the fantastic scenery & had fun. It was much more enjoyable and I would've blown up if I had kept the pace I was going.
At mile 8, the trail got incredibly rocky and started going up. The entire trail was a scattering of 12" rocks. Not anything you had to use your hands on & not gravel. Just really unrunnable sharp rocks you had to try to bounce between. This went on for 2-3 miles as it went uphill. I think my slowest mile was 19:00. Oh, and I disrespected the course so much, I decided to wear Brooks Launch- a lightweight road shoe. They were fine for most of the course, but I finished with a hole in the side of them from all the rocks.
Around mile 10, you came out on a wide, groomed path & got to the summit and went around the pinnacle. This was a neat section with a rock face on your left. From there, you descended an uneven set of hundreds of rock... steps isn't really the right word, but I guess you could call them that. My calves were shot from going up. Going down, my quads & knees were shaky. If there was any hope of a "fast" time, it was lost here. I was having fun. That was good enough. Also around this time, I developed severe stomach issues but they only lasted for about 5 miles. Kept me stationary for 10 minutes total.
The trail back to the finish was kind of lonely. I didn't see anyone until I started passing a few people towards the very end.
I felt good the last few miles and came through the last water crossing about 200m from the finish. It was the deepest one & you can see the finish line from there. I guess it was the cold water or the fact that I was running a little faster, but my hamstring cramped up. I couldn't move for 4 minutes, with the finish line in sight. People said, "It's right there- come on." Yeah, but I couldn't move. So I stood there yelling- more like exclaiming really for 4 minutes & then was able to half run across the finish line. 4:51:01. 39th out of about 100 starters. Ehh, for now, OK.
I was so completely dumb, when estimating my finish time, I thought, "OK, my fitness is not so great & I've got all of this excess weight right now... I think I could run a flat road marathon in 3:45. Add about a minute per mile to that for the trail & I'll be about 4:10." I can't begin to explain how horrible that logic was. If it were a flat trail race with moderate rocks & roots, I should add a minute per mile. Add to that, the elevation change & the rocks, bathroom break, hamstring cramp & yeah, I'm fine with my time. But this race should've never been about time or place. It was about getting back out there, enjoying myself and using this as a stepping stone for something bigger. It had a humbling effect but also gave me motivation to keep working. I will surely put this race on my 2014 to do list. I know I'll have a better showing next year & be able to run more of the hilly & technical sections.
Today is the start of that renewed work. We got 3" of snow at home yesterday & I guess I have to go take advantage of that by an hour long trail run at ASC. And by "hour" I mean 4-5 miles. :) I'm sore, but it'll feel good to be out there!