Mountains-To-Sea-Trail 50k 2017
Updated: Apr 15, 2019
Mine is a story not unlike so many others who find themselves at the starting line of a trail run of mileage beyond what they ever thought they would be capable of, for the first time. Through a series of life changing events and subsequent commitment to personal goals and betterment, I now stood in the pre-dawn light shivering, not from the 47 degree cold, but with unbridled anticipation. I was joining 84 others in the Mountain-to-Sea Trail 50k along the winding shore trails of Falls Lake in Raleigh NC. I had run a couple marathons, but had soured to road running and striving for PRs, and migrated to the solace and beauty of the area's trail networks. In so doing I had discovered this gem of serpentine single-track that I soon discovered was the site of Bull City Running's 50k and 12 mile April challenge. In true newbie fashion I signed up early... and spent a rewarding several months running sections of the course as well as my usual trails in Umstead park. My thoughts went to my training and preparation as the sun rose, and the shivering, settled into some much more tolerable butterflies in my stomach.
I tried to hang to the back 1/3rd at the start. The trail narrowed quickly and the trail-conga-line ensued. Within a few miles we had begun to space out and I found my rhythm... “my race”. I had left my headphones in my pack, opting instead for the satisfying rhythmic sounds of footfalls, mixed with the birds and frogs who were waking this morning. I think I had a grin on my face for at least the first 2/3rds, just marveling at the beauty of the trail and my appreciation for my body and its' ability to run it. The course is great for a newbie like myself, with frequent ups-and-down of no significant length or grade, but enough to prompt occasional power-hiking early-on. The out-and-back course meant I got to see Shan Guo on his way to an overall first place finish of 4:16:21 and first place female Erin Jobe at 5:04:43. I found myself pacing along with “Angela-from-Richmond” for several miles approaching the half-way turn-around at Falls Dam. An unspoken camaraderie as I've only read about, develops over the course of several miles. At the turn-around, the course drops into a separate loop, but then quickly re-joins the course, allowing me to now cheer on those still headed outbound.
The second half brought me closer to that mileage number I had yet to top. I felt good still, passing back along the familiar route, crossing footbridges, lake views, and old rusted hulk of a car... I had been smart with my pace, used my hydration well, layered appropriately, and now allowed myself the luxury of a little low-volume music on my bluetooth headphones. My new Richmond friend and I traded pacing/leading several times. My legs and back began to ache, but I repeated the mantra “It's only pain” and “It's only fatigue” over and over. I had been lucky enough to preview the course over the past few months on different segments, and I began to realize that I KNEW I was going to finish... I knew I was going to make it. My kids and their friend had made signs and were now showing up at each of the aid stations to cheer me on. That, along with the wonderful and energetic volunteers was giving me the boost that I needed to overcome the fatigue and keep smiling. With less than 2 miles to go, by crazy coincidence I passed a man out for a pleasure run who turned out to be the shop owner who had sold me my first pair of Hokas three years ago. I had talked to him since, picking his brain about ultras, and suddenly here he was, with a great big smile saying “You've GOT this!”. The last mile of the MST50k is doubly challenging in that it is somewhat technical. Not terrible mind you, but lots of roots and rocks necessitating purposeful foot placement. “Pick up your feet John!” became a new mantra for a bit there!
The final 100 yards or so winds through some trees until it suddenly pops out into a small field with the most beautiful finishers chute a newbie ultra runner has ever seen. I made a point of doing a “leap” in the air over the finish line (a la Sally McCrae and others), and in doing so almost got a thigh cramp. I was laughing and jazzed. There was food, and a finishers cup, and soft warm green grass to lay on in the sun.
The Mountain-to-Sea 50k and accompanying 12 mile challenge was a perfect first-time ultra for me... and further stoked my ambitions to run more, and farther. Bull City Running Co. made this local event accessible, professional and enjoyable. The MST, part of the NC State Park system, stretches 1000-miles across North Carolina from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smokies to Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks. More than 500 miles of the official trail are now complete, and with temporary connectors on back roads people can now hike across the state. Race proceeds benefited the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail who, with the help of dedicated volunteers, build and maintain the MST trail throughout the state as well as advocate and educate the importance of maintaining and securing our natural resources.