On Saturday, I ran a trail marathon on Pilot Mountain in North Carolina, a state park 30 minutes from Winston-Salem. These are typical East Coast technical trails with plenty of rocks and roots to navigate and 4,500 feet of climbing. This mountain has inspired much of my work, both paintings and installation, notably Paper Mountain. I’ve also spent countless hours hiking and running and camping here, so it felt pretty special to have the chance to run this event. Here’s my race report for anyone who cares about the nitty gritty details.
The race approaches the mountain on the Pilot Creek Trail, heads up the mountain on Grindstone, then Ledge Spring trail, goes around the Jomeoke trail at the top, back down Grindstone, around the Mountain trail, then back up Grindstone, Ledge Springs, Jomeoke, down Grindstone, around the Mountain trail again, and back out on Pilot Creek trail. Here’s a map of these trails if you’d like to take a look for yourself.
It was a little above freezing at the race start and got up into the mid forties by the end. I carried a hydration pack with 1.5 liters of water, a small first aid kit, a little baggie of potato chips and gummy bears, and planned to grab most of my food and additional drink at the aid stations along the way.
The morning of, I had my typical “race breakfast” of oatmeal, scrambled eggs and coffee, and I did my physical therapy exercises to help make sure I didn’t hurt myself. I drove the 35 minutes to race start and after picking up my bib, I did my usual dynamic warmup, ate a banana and drank a bottle of water.
A small group of us gathered at the start and it started to rain freezing rain. There were many more people racing the 20km course, and they stood nearby. The mood seemed fairly calm and relaxed. The race officially started and those of us doing the marathon ran into the woods. I could hear the freezing rain, but the tree canopy kept us dry. The ground was muddy – as expected since it rained most of the previous week.
I passed some people and was passed by others as we all established our rhythm, and within 15 minutes or so I was basically on my own in the woods. The first section, Pilot Creek trail, is a 3.3 mile section that brings you to the base of the mountain.
I stopped at the first aid station about 30min in, grabbed a cup of water and some Oreos and was on my way to start the first of 2 laps up and around the mountain. I ate an Oreo on the way up Ledge Springs trail, one of the big climbs, and was shocked by how sweet it tasted. I had a hard time getting 2 cookies down, but knew I needed the calories. My belly felt a little off after that, so at the 2nd aid station at the top of the mountain, I drank some Coke which thankfully helped. I grabbed 1/2 a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and ran down the mountain.
About halfway down the Grindstone trail, I took a wrong turn (100% my fault). Luckily I realized I was on the wrong trail fairly quickly, turned around and headed back to rejoin the right trail down the mountain. I lost a few minutes there and laughed it off to keep my heart rate from spiking due to the adrenaline.
One my way around the base of the mountain, as I stuffed my gloves into my pack, I twisted my ankle hard, but quickly recovered. To me this stretch is mentally the toughest of the race because it’s long and feels never-ending, but I felt pretty good. I ate my 1/2 PBJ sandwich and passed the water aid station, a gallon of water along the side of the trail, and opted not to stop there.
I passed the fourth aid station at the start of my second loop up the mountain, had some coke again since it worked well to keep my stomach settled and grabbed a half banana to eat up on the steep Ledge Spring climb. Just after starting that stretch of trail which is a series of steep rock “steps” for almost a mile, my left inner thigh threatened to cramp, so I tried climbing leading with my right leg each time. After a few steps, I realized I’d quickly fry that leg too, so I went back to alternating legs up each step, but focused on engaging other muscles. It worked and I was able to very gingerly make it up the climb without fully cramping.
Another coke from the aid station at the top and I took a gel with me for the loop around the base of the mountain. On the loop, my right inner thigh threatened to cramp, so I resorted to taking very small steps as I climbed and hopped around the rock gardens along the trail. I ate some of the chips I had brought with me, hoping the salt would help. It didn’t help fast enough, so I quickly downed the gel and that did the trick. My pace felt pretty good on the flats and descents and I eventually made it to the last aid station just before heading back on the Pilot Creek Trail. I walked to drink a cup of water and had another gel to make sure I didn’t “hit the wall” on the last few miles. Other than stiff legs, I felt ok, so I decided to pick up the pace on this last home stretch. I caught and passed a group of 3 men about a mile from the finish and happily kept them at bay. They were chatting as they ran, so I think I was working a lot harder than they were, but I’ll take it!
As soon as I popped out of the woods I saw and heard my husband and our son cheering for me, and felt a surge of emotion as I ran up the grass to the finish. I did it! I was greeted with a finisher’s medal (and I’ve never been so proud to receive one of those) and a bowl of chili and cornbread which I ate as I walked around in a daze.
The race promoters put on a great event, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a challenging trail marathon. I’d also like to take a second to thank my husband for supporting all my training and for being generally awesome. Thanks Tim!