Table Rock 50k 2018 Race Report
Updated: Apr 11, 2019
Ever since Sally McRae’s Western North Carolina Trail Running Camp put on by Tanawha Adventures I’ve been wanting to run one of Brandon Thrower’s races. The Table Rock Ultras (50k and 30k) held on September 22, 2018 was timed perfectly for my fall plans and as a great way to see some friends and have an excuse to scamper through Pisgah Forest during a gorgeous fall. I had already signed up for Pilot Mountain-to-Hanging Rock 50 miler in October, so this seemed like a perfect “training run”. I’d had some hamstring and ITB issues several weeks back, derailing a progression in mileage-building. So though I was a little under-trained going in, at least I had been smart and rehabbed properly so that I wasn’t injured. I was feeling good and excited as the days approached and I looked at the map and elevation profile taped to my bathroom mirror each morning and night.
The race starts and finishes at Steele Creek Family Campground which is about 20 minutes outside of Morganton. I decided that for this race I’d do it in style by renting an RV rather than camping. The campground is well appointed with bathrooms and showers, but I envisioned the luxury of an RV and there was no going back. My kids were originally going to come too but of course a thousand teenage commitments came up and they chose to stay back in Raleigh. There was a few days of concern about the remnants of Hurricane Florence and its effects on the trails, but Brandon’s emails reassured us that the trails would be open and the creeks just that much more refreshing.
Enter Allison (aka “Best-Girlfriend-Ever”), only a few months on the Goldfield scene but already firmly established as my biggest supporter and favorite adult human. My proposal: “How would you like to come to my race with me? We’ll drive an RV up 3 hours from Raleigh to Morganton. The campground is lovely but there’s no transportation back into town once we set up camp. I'll be somewhat distracted the night before prepping,..Morganton has Uber so we can go get something to eat from there... I’ll get up at 5am to eat/prep/try to have a bowel movement,... I’ll be out running for 7-8 hours… no crew access so you’ll just be here in the RV...I’ll be totally spent/sweaty/dirty/wet when I roll back in, and probably semi-worthless that night… then we drive back to Raleigh” Allison’s response was of course YES!
RVshare.com found me a sweet 31’ Chateau from a guy who turned out to be a trail runner himself and was planning his first 50k at PM2TR in October! Kizmet! We filled a cooler full of beer and LaCroix, packed grocery bags full of chips, pretzels, pop-tarts, jar of pickles, Twizzlers, Liquid IV packets, Spring Energy gels, Tailwind powder and alllll the crap I might need to run 31 miles. We were SET. Got up there… scored a killer site… hooked up to power and water… put out the slide-outs and awning… laid the outdoor rug down… set up the chairs...popped open beers and pulled up the Uber app on our phones… … … … no cell service… … … no worries! The Steele Creek website advertised a camp store with a grill serving burgers and whatnot. A short walk later we find “Grill closed at 3pm” (it’s now about 7pm). Luckily we talked the guy running the thing into selling us a loaf of cheap white bread, a pound of bacon, a small package of ham and some processed american cheese slices. We were in business! Best pre-race meal yet: Grilled ham and cheese with bacon and chips washed down with beer! (Thank goodness for the Best-Girlfriend-Ever).
Race day brought a surprisingly warm dawn at about 71 degrees and humid… ahhhhh summer still has her grip on us here in Cack-a-lacky. It was lovely out, but we knew that we’d be finishing in heat and humidity… those stream crossings were gonna be critical cooling stops. My Trail Camp friends Jen and Angela were making their 50k debuts and Jen had brought two more of our trail family Eileen and Karen along to volunteer at the summit aid station. It was so great to see them all in the early semi-darkness as we did our stretches and laughed and adjusted our packs and generally just wanted to get going. In Tanawha Adventures tradition, Brandon slung a banjo on his chest and after a countdown from 10 he began to pick and we began to run.
In typical trail race fashion, Table Rock 50k starts out on wide enough trails and through fields so as to allow us to spread out to avoid too much of a “conga line” right off the bat. I ran into Erica from the House of Hops run club I sometimes frequent in the first 2 miles and we revelled in just being out there. Jen and Angela and I all decided to run our own races, so before long I was on my own with whomever happened to have the same pace at that moment.
The first 7 miles or so flew past. There were some rolling double-track parts, broken up by several creek crossings. The creeks were probably 20-30 feet wide from ankle to knee deep. Some wrong steps on one crossing left some chest deep! My feet were just gonna be wet today. We meandered along the creek and though Rhododendron tunnels. Trails crossed creeks… became creeks themselves. Mud got all over my feet, and then within less than a miles would be washed clean by another creek. Then we started climbing. Some single track… some scrambling over rock faces, some nearly hands and knees. Eventually this transitioned to wider gravel roads… “runnable” terrain, but would quickly sap the energy in my legs if I didn’t force some power-walk breaks. An out-and-back section to the aid station at about mile 10ish meant that I could see the front-runners coming back down towards me. One of the things I love so much is the community and camaraderie of it as we pass on the trails: “Good job dude!” Lookin’ good!”, ‘You got this!”... we exchange these encouragements as they pass me… on their way to finishing more than 3 hours ahead of me! There continued to be a lot of that, as this course has two major out-and-back sections. At the aid station there was a guy who had been stung by yellow jackets wrapped in a space blanket and looking a little red and shaky. I eavesdropped that he’d already gotten Benadryl and was doing better, an MD who was volunteering standing by him and ambulance on the way. Another guy was dry-heaving multiple times, but when he turned around to face me gave dual-thumbs up and grinned… these guys will both be fine… no playing PA for me today.
The next section left me by myself for long stretches. Mostly all gravel roads rolling up and down. Some long stretches of incline eventually had me power-walking more than I’d like, but I knew there’d be some big climbing to come as we ascended Table Rock itself. At one point the trail turns and through the trees I can see the Table Rock itself! It seems miles away, and I know I have to go DOWN before we go UP that bad boy! At the aid station before the ascent they assure us “2.2 miles to the summit!”. I recall however, that it’s also about a 1000 foot gain from here over that relatively short distance. But I always say I love to climb… so BRING IT!
Climbing… already 16ish miles in… wet feet… glutes are worked from all the slight incline roads that I found myself hiking and walking… the summit is actually 4000’ above sea level. It’s single track now and I share some of this climb with Erica whom I’ve finally caught up with. We slide past briars and rocky outcroppings. There are steps and boulders to navigate. Parts of the trail wind between giant boulders. Intermittently there are views to our left or right so staggeringly beautiful that even though we’ve not yet reached the “kodak moment” summit, we stop to snap pics on our sweaty phones. Here too are the other runners descending, encouraging words and “you’re almost there!”, “don’t worry it’s worth it!”. And then we summit. It’s a shame really, that this is a “race” and we feel this urge to get on with it, otherwise I’d have stayed for hours up there. Still, there’s always time for a few selfies, and getting someone to try to catch a jumping picture of me. I’m almost ready to depart the summit when my friend Jen catches up with me! So fantastic to share this moment with her and we take more pics. Then it’s time to head back down...there’s still a lot of this 50k to run after all. The aid station at the summit parking lot has Eileen and Karen cheering us in… and popsicles, maybe the best I’ve ever had. Here I treat myself to a fresh dry pair of socks. Slide my wet shoes over them, top off fluids and jam some PB & J and chips down before we head back out.
Headed out of that aid station in dry socks, with a popsicle on board, fluids topped off and with Jen we revel in encouraging others toward the previous aid station just as others had done before us. As we come back to the fork in the road where we had previously gone up to the summit, we now begin what can best be described as a quad-shredding downhill portion. It’s an amazing and daunting proposition,... to ask your legs to actually RUN downhill without collapsing or tripping, somehow managing to stay light enough so that the force does not crush into your lower back and rattle the fillings in your teeth. It’s floating, and falling and dancing all at the same time,... all the while those quad muscles are burning and fatiguing. Jen and I are crushing it though! It’s not amazingly fast, but it’s an amazing amount of steady forward progress compared to the previous miles. The trails mercifully become softer pine needle covered, but we are still occasionally treated to some steep inclines or stairs. All we can think about is the streams we know we’ll be crossing again. Jen and I both agree that we’ll be sitting down in the first crossing we come to, just to soak in the icy cold for a bit. It’s a carrot dangling ahead of us for several miles! When it comes, it’s every bit as refreshing and cold as we’d hoped. The first crossing is calf deep, but another is thigh deep unless you go to the left too much… I see one guy drop in and do a couple breast strokes across a bit of a hole. We’re all loving this, and using every opportunity to cool off because we know that the sun is up, along with the temps, and Brandon had warned us that the exposure on the last 6 miles would be brutal.
The final aid station comes with a guy in short pink shorts filling water and a lady in zebra print boots and a sparkly silver dress. They’ve made hot melty grilled cheese sandwiches and they have cold Coca Cola… heaven. Jen and I linger a bit, but we know it’s time to finish this thing out. We head out and I note that Jen seems determined to finish strong. “Excellent!” I say to myself, I’ll pace along with her. We catch a few people, and she starts to create a gap between us… my legs… the heat...my will… eventually despite pushing harder than I think I can,... even running a bit more of the “ups” than her,... I lose that imaginary string holding me on to her. “Go Jen!” I cheer in my head, as I resign myself to slogging out the final miles with something just this side of a death march. At one point I choose to run in the most exposed area just so I can make it to some shade. (alas, the humidity robs much relief from that respite). I know this part of the course as we did it on the way out in the morning… still it seems to take forever ‘till I hear the sounds of the campground and finish line. Crossing the bridge before the turn to the finish area there are a bunch of earlier finishers and 30k-ers sitting in the stream drinking beer and cheering for me as I raise a fist. Coming down the finish chute Eileen cheers me on from the corner and I hear Brandon yelling “Get it John!”. Through the arch I see Allison, with a look that is a mixture of pride, relief and amazement at the spectacle of quiet accomplishment she’s been witnessing all afternoon. She wants to hug me… but I really really stink, and I’m soaking wet with sweat, creek water and who knows what else.
And then I’m high-fiving Brandon, and drinking Liquid IV in one hand and a beer in the other. There’s a delicious spread of taco fixin’s and beer from Catawba Brewing… a good thing as we still don’t have any food besides a half loaf of bread and a few processed cheese slices in the RV. One more trip back to the creek to soak, and then after some toes-up time on the reclining camp chairs outside our RV, I’m taking advantage of perhaps the biggest bonus of driving that big ol’ thang up here… my own personal shower! Ahhhhhh… human(ish) again. It’s time to put on the Table Rock t-shirt I avoided looking at before the race… a few more beers… reveling in our accomplishments with Jen and Angela. Proud of all of us, and so grateful to have had the opportunity to run this mountain and share it with friends and loved ones. Props to Brandon and Tanawha Adventures for such a great course, incredible aid stations, tacos and beer and an awesome ultra vibe.