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  • John Goldfield

Slaying the Mile 20 Dragon: The South Mountains Marathons 50k 2022

Brandon Thrower has an excellent sense of humor. As the force behind Tanawha Adventures trail races and trail running camps, he takes great pleasure in bringing some of the most amazing trails, vistas and sights of Western North Carolina to the rest of us happy dirt lovers. I met Brandon at my first Trail Camp (of the three I ultimately attended) in 2018, and since then have vowed to run as many of his races and attend the camps as often as possible. He has a sly grin and a mischievousness behind his eyes that belies his soft slow southern drawl as he describes the trails we’d be undertaking at these camps each day. “There’s a little up, and little down…” was oft his explanation for a portion of trail, which would inevitably turn out to be a pulse pounding grind up the side of a mountain, followed by a careening, screaming, on-two-wheels downhill. That’s Brandon though.

The South Mountains Marathons (50k, marathon & half) happen the first weekend in January at South Mountains State Park, the largest State park in North Carolina, near Morganton NC at the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park is a true jewel in this area, sometimes overlooked because of proximity to such draws as Grandfather Mountain, Linville Falls, Blowing Rock and the waterfall filled forests of Pisgah and Dupont amongst others. But to say that the South Mountains are less in any way is a great underestimation of their beauty and variety. Brandon calls the course a “grand and grueling tour of beautiful South Mountains State Park”, and it IS that.

31 plus miles, 7000 plus feet of elevation gain, 6 frigid creek crossings, High Shoals Falls up close and personal not once (going up) but twice (going down), many, many stairs and boulder-steps, trails ranging from wide and smooth doubletrack trails, to tight and technical singletrack trails and grades from easy and gentle to holy crap this is steep! Great aid station support, a 9 hour cutoff and a sweet handmade pottery finisher’s medal.

I had run South Mountains 50k 2 years ago on a rainy but not quite as cold day. I had felt good enough that I ran hard down a roughly 3 mile section of fast steady decline at about mile 17, catching up to a friend and feeling elated despite having tired and trembling quads. It was at that mile 20ish where a roughly 1.5 mile climb gains nearly 600 feet. It crushed my soul that year, and despite a well stocked aid station at Fox Ridge, and another in the valley beyond, I was beaten and could only slog up the remaining two climbs to the finish completely spent. I remembered that mile-20-monster this year, and I’d come prepared.

Since 2019 I’ve embraced poles for climbing, and have found them amazingly helpful keeping my form, my back upright and my cadence steady. In addition, I purchased a necessary evil… a treadmill capable of a 15% incline (to which I’ve added some blocks to get a few more % out of it). My coach had me tacking on 20-30 minutes of brisk hiking at incline to simulate these long sustained climbs in a way not attainable in my local Umstead Park.

SoMo 2022 dawned on January 8th with a temp estimated at 19-20 degrees at the start. Brandon’s signature start is to serenade us with his banjo at the count of “GO”. We were all hopping around trying to keep warm… fleece hats, layers, buffs, gloves and the like. Once we rolled through the blow up arch to the sound of the plunking of five strings, it was only a matter of a mile or two and several hundred feet of climbing that the layers started coming off. The ground was hard from the overnight freeze, and the hoar-frost (or is it rime?) was scattered and glistening in its crystalline beauty across our path. Stream crossings had exposed rocks… buuuut those “wet” rocks were actually coated in slippery ice. Thought you’d try to keep your shoes dry? Hahaha, revel in that brisk chill my friend!

The 50k course essentially climbs and descends 7 times. There really are no flat sections. Much of the course is “runnable”, that is, as long as you are comfortable running downhill, and sometimes uphill. At roughly mile 7 the second ascent takes you across and up the side of High Shoals Falls, an epic 80 foot picturesque waterfall that plummets through boulders and under wooden walkways. The steps/rocks/stairs climbing its flank will get even the most zen heart rate racing.

The downhills are quite fun… in the beginning. Some of the trails are practically West-coast-ish at times with their absence of roots and rocks, and one finds themselves whooping and grinning with arms akimbo flying through the woods. But alas, it is only mile 15, and there is still much vert to come. More steep climbing over the next two miles until yet another roller coaster downhill until… my dragon at 20 miles.

It shouldn’t be any harder to climb this hill on the course than any other, but there is something about having just run those two downhills, and with legs now just fried enough, that it quite suddenly becomes a monster. It’s not technical… not demoralizing switchbacks, not even straight up. But it just seems to KEEP GOING. This year though, I was ready… I was gonna embrace the suck… laugh in the face of the dragon, and slay that sucker. One foot, one pole, the other foot, the other pole. Before long I was cresting Fox Ridge, and with a hollar I rolled into the aid station and said “YES” to a shot of Fireball Whiskey and a warm cheese quesadilla! So happy with myself was I that I completely forgot to refill water bottles (luckily the next aid station was only 4.9 miles away).

At the top of the ridge now I had some cell bars, and texted my teenaged girls who were happily spending my money in nearby Asheville, telling them I was well and having a blast… letting them know I was a little ahead of my estimated time.

Now, if you’ve got legs left here, you can really make some time. The course winds downhill for several smooth and runnable miles until the last aid station comes into view. Here's where it gets fuzzy though. There’s still more climbing to do of course… but it’s a false summit, followed by teasing signs showing only “1.4 miles” to the Jacob Fork parking area (the finish!)... but… you’ve still got… one…more…climb. Back up to the top of High Shoals Falls, and then back down its treacherous boulders and steps before the last downhill cruise and the finish. Just to be sure you haven’t escaped all bodily insult, there is one more creek crossing with less than a mile to go… and yes… that rock that looks safe to step on…ICE. Splash! Down I go on all fours in icy cold mountain stream water! Only thing to do was to RUN to keep warm and get to that finish line!

Brandon is there to give a high-five and grin. He wants to know how I liked it, and of course I tell him I LOVED IT. All the agonizing climbs, the quad crushing descents, the ice cold wet feet… ALL of it. A handmade medal is slung around my neck and I head to a picnic shelter across the parking area where a roaring fire, hot chili with all the fixin’s and my fellow runners gather.

What a glorious day! A little up and a little down in the South Mountains.

Gear List:

Path Projects: Pyrenees T19 hoody, Tahoe CL shorts liner and Killam PX pants

Xoskin: Liner shirt, Xotoes socks

Craft: Hybrid Weather gloves

Topo Athletic: Ultraventure trail shoes

Ultraspire: Alpha 4.0 vest

Leki: Micro Flash trekking poles

Precision Fuel & Hydration: PH 1000 electrolyte drink mix

Spring Energy: nutrition gels

Trail Toes: body lube

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