Crowders Mtn 50K (ouch!)
I’m from the Piedmont and it’s been explained to me that us flatlanders put the word “mountain” on any mound of dirt approximately taller than our heads and that most so called “mountains” around the Charlotte area would more appropriately be called hills. All I know is that on a recent beautifully clear and crisp weekend morning I became intimately familiar with the aches and pains associated with “mountain” trail endurance runs, right here at Crowders Mtn in Charlotte’s own backyard.
I couldn’t have asked for a better locale or group of people for my first trail ultra and in that 24 hour buffered memory way of thinking, every tiring minute was fun and enjoyable. It was 8:30am and thirty of us paced back and forth like a pack of anxious woodsy hounds hot to be released after the strong scent of a crafty fox. The RD, Claude Sinclair, gave a brief heads up on trail markings and shuffled us over to an ascending gravel road. With a wave of his hand and a simple “go” we were off.
Within minutes this climbing, winding ‘Tower Trail’ had separated the elite from the (how shall I say) less elite. I of course found myself in the latter group. Two miles up and I crested the top with a couple other runners who were feeling their way along on the first of this three loop/out&back course. Eliza Westin took a quick swig of drink and asked which way down. I pointed the way and then enjoyed watching her pull further and further ahead of me the rest of the race.
Then it was down the “Backside Trail” steps and out and back on the “Crowder Trail” which winds its way like a snake around the side of the mountain. I did part of this lap chatting with Tony Rouse who had run the Umstead marathon the day before. I must say I was suitably impressed especially when he pulled away and followed Eliza’s disappearing act. I’d figured to see the leader passing back by after I crossed over to the last section of trail where it returns to a gravel path with a couple foot bridges over a creek or two. It was therefore quite surprising to see the frontrunner (Dennis Marcus) approach and glide smoothly by a mile earlier I expected (on his way to a new course record). Wow, could he really keep up that pace. It was better than my pancake flat road running time.
The first loop went by 15 min. ahead of my pre-race estimation of 2:30 hrs per loop. I changed shirts and asked Claude for advice on how to stop my toes from jamming into the toe box on the down hills [did I mention this was my first trail run]? He had several good suggestions but I couldn’t implement the fixes with the supplies I’d brought so I just changed into a shorter sleeved shirt and headed back out. The second loop seemed much longer than the first as I was a bit left behind and so with no one to talk to I went to plan B and pulled out my armband radio and head set. This kept me company for a while until the Tower took over washing away any decent signal. As a good eagle scout, however, I was prepared and pulled out my backup CD player. Yes, I realize a serious runner wouldn’t be carrying a 5 lb belt of gadgets, gels, food bars and extra batteries but this was supposed to be fun right.
I came in from loop two with a Big lift in spirits as I knew my brother would have arrived and would pace me the last loop. We did the meet and greet and I changed shoes to try and eliminate the toe tip pummeling. I changed shirts again so neither of us would have to smell the previous one and we were off. We power J walked the two miles up and the walking and conversation washed away nearly all the tiredness, which had threatened my fun. We stepped lightly down the crosstie stairs and moved to Crowder trail. I tried giving a different set of encouragements to each of the runners passing us on their final trip back in; “Way to bring it on home”, “ Looking strong”, “Show me how it’s done”, etc. and Todd got in on it too. Every runner I met seemed to revel in the day.
I stopped at my day’s final turn-around and spent a minute or two talking with Natalie Schmidt, the volunteer who had told me about this race last year. I grabbed a handful of ginger snaps and headed back. Todd tried to encourage me with lines like “well, that’s the last time you have to cross that creek today”, and “you won’t have to climb this ditch again”. I began joking back with a wave and “see you another day” to a two-foot stump jutting up in the middle of the trail. We stopped three or four times to trail sweep a couple Gu packet tops, a small wrapper, etc. as it was obvious I was bringing up the rear and time wasn’t really a factor.
The last climb up the backside steps worried me as my right quad began flexing against my will and we slowed down as I tried pushing up with the left leg and just stabilizing with the right. We passed a family resting on the side and one boy of about 9 said he didn’t think he could make it to the top. I encouraged him not to give up but to rest a minute or two and then move on. He said the ranger had told him it was over 300 steps. Three hundred and thirty-three I told him, thinking to myself this loop would round it off to a nice thousand for the day. We came down the gravel road at less than a gallop but more than a walk and approaching the timing table I let out a loud “Tiger” roar like my son does in cub scouts. Everyone looked up and my brother chimed in loudly hollering “knees and elbows, knees and elbows, lift those feet” like a drill sergeant. I mimed the gesture and everyone clapped as the day was done. A few congratulations to fellow runners, a cup of “Crowders” stew and it was time to go home and rest up until next time. I took my race shirt and read the Team Slug Motto inscription with pride, ‘Take off Slow, then Back Off’.