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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

TABLE ROCK ULTRA 50K: Race Analysis, Impressions & Notes (RAIN)

September 26, 2015
Bart's Race Report

The 2015 Table Rock Ultra 50K will be an event that few will ever forget.  Not so much perhaps because of the course challenge and difficulty, or the breath taking beauty of the mountains, forest and streams, but more due to the rain and quantity of rain that left its soggy impact on the runners and volunteers.

The near ideal conditions at the start with a light misty fog the first few miles almost left me with a dream like other worldly impression.  The first mile of wide open green pastures that allowed the 100 plus runners to spread out and settle into a comfortable pace was immediately followed by an uphill single track that was still in reasonable shape even after a drenching down pour the day before.  We came to a meadow peppered with small reeds and a path among them that had been weed-whacked and partially trampled by other runners that provided an uphill path to the double track/jeep road.  It was among these trampled reeds that my left shoe suddenly caught on something that almost brought me down but at the last millisecond released its grip on my foot.  I carried on up the hill thinking “that was weird”.  It would be hours later before I discovered what had just happened.  Weather and trail wise, the best was yet to come.

Race starting line

During the first slight uphill climb I noticed one little gal that ran slightly ahead of me struggling a bit with her footing, and when she bent over to lace her shoes, her water bottle fell out of the holster.  She gave me the impression she was a newcomer to the world of long distance trail running.  I gave her an encouraging word as I passed by and glanced over my shoulder a couple of times to see how she was doing; Bib No. 120.   She seemed to be soldering along in spite of what appeared to be a rough start for the day.  Intermittent heavy, but thankfully relatively warm rain greeted me just before the first aid station.  At aid station 1, the helpful crew topped off my .5 liter Hydraflask, and I moved on within one minute. I had been on the hoof for just a little over an hour so I was pleased with my progress.

Entering Steele Creek Gorge, I was greeted with one of the first of several challenges for the day, the crossing of Steele Creek.  In near flood conditions the rope (provided by the Race Directors) made the crossing doable though the swift current almost spun me around as the water level was well above mid-thigh.  One arm around the rope and the other clutching the trekking poles I launched myself across the worse of the rapids and onto a huge gray boulder on the other side.  One other runner behind me was having difficulty getting started across the water, and I hollered back asking if he needed assistance.  He motioned me onward and said he would take his time.  I believe he turned back at that point because I never saw him again while the two women that came behind him I saw on at least three other occasions at out & back sections of the course. (Note: All runners were accounted for by the Race Directors).  Yes, Steele Creek today could be a bit intimidating if you were not having a better day of it, and I wondered silently about Bib number 120 and how she would fair getting across this obstacle.  Once on the other side, I was now on the Mountains to Sea Trail and would head north along the creek until the trail intersected a forest service road.

There was so much moisture and fog in the air

Steele Creek Gorge was challenging in places and proved to be very slow tedious going, but I managed good forward progress and eventually wound up on better trails that allowed more running and less hiking and scrambling.  I reached the forest service road and headed uphill for a short out & back section to aid station 2.   Once I arrived at aid station 2, I noticed the weather was considerably cooler and the air heavier with moisture.  This was a check in point where bib numbers were recorded by a friendly helpful staff of encouraging volunteers. The volunteer refilled my Hydraflask as I inhaled a PB&J and a piece of banana.  I left the aid station at just under 3 hours on the clock and ran back down the hill approximately 0.75 miles back to where the MST intersected this forest service road that I would now be running on for the next 90 minutes or so.  This gave us all an opportunity to see who was running behind or immediately in front of us.  Just before I reached the MST/forest road intersection here came Bib No. 120 making her way up to the No. 2 aid station.  I shouted some encouraging words and she waved back.  She had made it over Steele Creek after all!  From this point I had approximately 6 miles of forest service road that climbed two ridges, both followed by an almost equal amount of downhill.  It was along this section I experienced the most rain and the coldest rain.  I found myself hiking faster and running the hills a bit more, not because I really felt the need to go faster this early on but because I needed to generate more body heat to stay comfortable.  I made sure to keep the gels, electrolyte and water going down the pie hole particularly during this segment to meet energy demands.   It was along the second of the two uphill climbs that the aroma of Kielbasa sausage and sour kraut filled my head.  This may sound odd coming from a primarily vegetarian, but Eve came up with the most outrageous tasting meatless sausage that we consume on occasion.  Where the smell was coming from I have no idea; perhaps it was due to self-inflicted pity or a bit of hypothermia.  If I had a bad patch during the day it was at this time, but the thought of Eve putting a meal together of this sort within the warmth of our kitchen brought my spirits back to 100% and from this point on, I knew I would find myself at the finish even it was another 4 - 5 hours distant.  This section brought this runner/hiker to aid station 3 and a cheerful trio taking care of my every need. They topped off my water bottle while I grabbed a banana and was on my way again.  The rain had eased considerably and the temperatures a bit warmer. I also found myself at the foot of the premier climb of the day up to Table Rock Mountain.

I had prepared myself this entire summer for this climb.  I found a mountain nearby our home that duplicated the Table Rock climb almost exactly for gradient and distance.  I knew what I had to do. The only variable and unknown would be the footing or lack thereof due to the rain and actual trail difficulty (rocks, roots, prone runners face down in the mud, etc.), but I was ready to step over and around anything.  The climb went beautifully.  It was hard, it was difficult, but it was very rewarding.  The clouds and rain obscured any views that I may have anticipated, but there was beauty all around; the rocks, the trees, water cascading down the mountain through the same.  Maybe this was not what I anticipated but this was what I came for; the adventure and the unknown.  Reinhold Messner once said, “Without the unknown, without the unexpected, there can be no true adventure.”  Well, here it was and I had a smile on my face that would take a jack-hammer (or solid downhill face plant) to knock off.

As I approached the summit of Table Rock I bumped into Doug Blackford on his way down.  I had met Doug once before some time ago on a group run.  When I saw him his name immediately popped out of my mouth, “Hi Doug! How’s it goin’?”  (Those of you that know me, this is Bart Smith, the guy who never heard a name he couldn’t forget.)  Doug was almost embarrassed it seemed to me, perplexed for sure, “Doin’ great! Who the hell are you?”  I reminded him of a run we did together at DuPont State Park with Adam Hill’s group about 6 years prior.  The light bulb moment hit him and “Oh yeah” immediately followed.  We wished each other well, Doug thanked me for remembering him, and we continued on.  Strange what several ounces of caffeinated gel and a 1,400 foot climb in less than 2 miles can do for your mental health and recall ability.

I arrived at the summit in good shape in just under 6 hours total for the day.  I had my picture taken by the cheery couple who logged my bib number as I basked momentarily in the clouded non-existent view and turned and made my way down to the aid station number 4 at the Table Rock parking area.  Time for another peanut butter and jelly sandwich and…..what!… that chicken noodle soup?  This was an unexpected treat for sure even for this vegetarian!  Got my bottle topped off with water, down went the soup and the PB&J, thank you, thank you, thank you to the volunteers and headed back down to aid station number 5.  The run down the mountain, or should I say the quasi “stick a pole, jump turn, side slip, throw in a telemark or two” mud skiing adventure run down Table Rock Mountain made me very thankful for my extensive back-country skiing experience.  If the conditions had been slightly better or worse, depending on your perspective, I would be inclined to suggest Blue Swix under both shoes prior to setting off down the hill.  Ski wax or not, I was making my way down without incident, and what do I see? Bib No. 120 working her way up the hill.  Seeing her was one of most inspiring sights of the day.  I thought “Damn! This little gal is tough!”  We exchanged “high fives” and I wished her well on the remainder of the journey.  Not much further down the hill/slope someone yelled “Hi Bart!” and there was Mandy Higdon who was functioning as the 50K sweep.  She had her “DFL” as she calls it, just few yards ahead of her.  He was not doing well, or so it appeared. Mr. DFL was hugging a rock and sweating heavily.  I felt badly for him; this could not be fun.  Mandy was enjoying her day out the best she could and staying somewhat warm in spite of her not being able to move at a suitable pace to maintain body temperature. She wished me well, said a few encouraging words and I moved on.

I stopped at aid station 5 only to find out they were almost out of water.  Fortunately I had a backup .5 liter of water in my pack so I knew I was good until the next and final aid station.  I told them to save it for those behind me that might be in more need of water than I was. 

The course now placed us on the western most portion of the MST we would run on that day.  The run down the MST to Steele Creek Gorge from this point was pure fun.  Beautiful pine needle covered trail, great footing and plenty of free speed all the way back to the same roped Steele Creek crossing I had struggled over that morning.  The water crossing was easy this time as the creek level had dropped 6-8 inches from earlier in the day.  Once the creek was crossed I had forest service road almost all the way to aid station 6 and a happy bunch that immediately asked what I needed, “A shot of Tullamore and some Demerol will be just fine thanks!”  This was my first and only blank stare of the day. I settled for getting my water bottle topped off (with water) and another TB&J.  I thanked this group profusely as they had been in place the entire day, in less than pleasant weather, as the first and last aid station on the course.  I had now less than 5 miles to go, and I was ready to wrap it up.

During these final miles I reflected on how well everything had gone in spite of the weather and muddy, slippery trail conditions that were steadily deteriorating in many places.  My Patagonia Houdini jacket was perfect, the Salomon vest was ideal, my Hoka One One Speedgoat shoes gave me traction in many places where others were slipping and sliding almost helplessly.  The best part, the shoes still felt good on my feet 7 hours after I started that morning and enduring a day of constantly being soaking wet.  Injinji toe socks are the only way to go, for me at least and my RaceReady shorts provided as much comfort as I could hope for while the extra pockets proved once again practical for holding and storing items off and on throughout the day.  And last but not least, the Black Diamond Z-trekking poles: they were very much responsible for making very difficult trail conditions, safer and quicker to navigate.  I had trained with them all summer along, and other than the first 30 minutes or so of initial awkwardness, I immediately liked them.  Sure, years of back country and cross country skiing certainly made the transition easier, the advantage they provide definitely outweigh any encumbrance they might impose.

Table Rock on a clear day

Along this stretch I passed several runners that were feeling the effects of the day.  One runner, Stacey, fell in step with me and we talked and reflected about the day’s event and on different things we had experienced.  My Garmin told me we were within a mile of the finish when suddenly there was a barrier crossing the double track road directly in front of us.  No big deal, only problem was this was an out & back portion of the course and this damn barrier was not there earlier that day.  We crossed the barrier and looked in all directions for a course marker indicating we were on the right trail.  No cross markers to be seen anywhere.  This is what they call a real “WTF moment” folks.  We did the only prudent thing and that was to backtrack the way we came until we found a course marker that would indicate we were on the right path again then try to figure where the hell the turn or intersection indicator was at.  We couldn’t believe we had passed it without seeing something telling to us turn off the jeep road and down to the single track that would lead us to the big meadow leading to the finish.  We backtracked approximately a mile (according to the Garmin) when we came to an open field on our right.  We stopped and looked around carefully, and sure enough about 100 yards into the field was a lone tree with a flag (course marker) hanging from one of the branches.  Depression and pissed-offed-ness immediately turned to elation as we made our way down the hill and on our way to the finish.  True, with 2 extra miles under our belts, but on our way to the finish none the less.  Eve was out on the course waiting for me about ½ mile from the finish, and we ran in together laughing, stopping for an occasional hug, and talking about the day’s event for both of us.  I crossed the finish a little over 9 hours after heading the other direction earlier that morning.   All in all, it was a great day in the mountains and a great adventure.

Photo Credit: Natalie Halapin
Special thanks to Mark Rostan and Brandon Thrower, co-race directors for this fantastic event and all the wonderful volunteers.  Their encouragement, warm welcomes and assistance made a world of difference in the overall experience.  Thank you guys and gals, you were awesome!

Special “shout out” to our friend Natalie Halapin who finished 3rd overall female and also a photo contributor to this post.  Good going Natalie and thank you.

This is the UTSAD aka Unidentified Trail Shit and Debris that 
almost tripped me up early on.  I didn't discover this was 
embedded in my shoe until we got home. Thank God for thick
Hoka soles.

How Eve and Shadow spent most of the rainy day waiting 
on my return

Monday, September 7, 2015

Hoka Speedgoat

Last week, Aaron, one of the owners of Foot RX Asheville, requested that I provide some feedback/input on my impression of and experience with the newly introduced Hoka One One Speedgoat.  

Here it is: The Hoka One One Speedgoat is the updated Rapa Nui or, Rapa Nui 3, after considerable input from the Speedgoat himself, Karl Meltzer.  My initial impression is that the Hoka Speedgoat is a quantum leap from the Rapa Nui to point I have to say the Speedgoat (SG) is a completely different shoe.  The SG upper has a slipper like feel to it and seems to be very forgiving and comfortable.  The heel and midfoot is snug, similar to the Rapa Nui, but the toe box is considerably roomier.  

The other point that I have to make, and very gladly, is that the SG has the soft pillow like cushion reminiscent of the original Hoka Mafate, the shoe that put Hoka on this runner's radar.   Based on my years of experience with Vibram outsoles on mountaineering boots, I cannot imagine I will be anything less than very pleased with the performance of Vibram sole on the SG even though this is a first for me on a running shoe.  

I have now put several hours of running into these shoes on a variety of surfaces, road and trails, flat and steep, wet and dry, loose and firm, and I have to say, based on my experience, this is the best Hoka One One​ shoe to hit the market and is definitely the type of shoe that will please a wide variety of runners.

Now, get out there and run!