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  • John Goldfield

Western NC Trail Camp with Sally McRae

Tanawha Adventures Western NC Trail Camp Oct 2019:

There is a place… where the convergence of love, laughter, the beauty of nature and an adventurous challenge exist. A place where morning coffee means connection with like minded souls, where a “fairy” spreads running gear and snacks on your bunk, where food is shared in dining halls, restaurants and on the hillside of a 6800 foot mountain, where songs are sung around a campfire and in a smelly 15 passenger van, where running also means flying and falling and skipping and jumping, and where it is all done with a healthy dose of mirth and joy. Where, in the span of 5 glorious days, strangers become family.

In Spring 2017 I was a fledgling ultra-runner. In love with trail running and looking to work my way up to a challenging 50 miler in the Virginia Mountains. I did virtually all my training on my own and even though I had hired a coach, we communicated primarily by email. The “loneliness of the distance runner” I fully embraced. I liked it that way, and it gave me much needed solitude and time for reflection. There was a feeling, however, that I was missing something. The “community” I had heard and read so much about in magazines and podcasts intrigued me. I wanted to feel that, but just didn’t know how to go about it. I also need some elevation training.

Several months earlier I had listened to a popular podcast called “Trail Runner Nation” and I had heard a woman on the show who fascinated me. She had just come off a crazy sounding mountain training run where she had gotten badly lost. It sounds like it really could’ve gone badly. There she was telling this story with hilarious detail and laughing infectiously. That laugh… it was clear that this was a woman who embraced ALL of life, from the ordinary to the crazy adventure of her afternoon run. This was Sally McRae… a respected and accomplished ultra-runner and obviously a favorite of the hosts of the show. She sounded like someone I’d love to meet. At the end of the show she mentioned coaching at a “running camp” in North Carolina in the fall. I made a mental note thinking, wouldn’t THAT be a trip! Later I found her website and placed an inquiry through the “contact me” link.

Fast forward to end of May/early June… an email from some place called Camp Grier and Tanawha Adventures. They were offering me an early opportunity to sign up for a Sally McRae coached camp in the fall since I had inquired “previously”. I was at work… I was feeling spontaneous and like treating myself to something fun… and besides, I needed some mountain training, right?! I took the leap, having no idea I was going to change my life and become a part of something bigger and more amazing than I could’ve anticipated.

Camp Grier is a 600 acre Presbyterian church based camp in Old Fort, NC. They mainly provide summer camps to kids of all ages, providing everything from canoeing, rope swings, zip-lines, rock climbing, biking and running to horseback riding and gardening. It’s a classic residential type camp, with dorm-style buildings with common areas and shared bathrooms, a giant dining hall, pavilion, boat house and docks on a lake. Owner Jason McDougal makes every effort to make Camp Grier the welcoming and happy place that it is, and surrounds himself with dedicated staff who clearly have the same goal. It is a quintessential summer camp in all the ways you’d imagine it… and it was to be the site of the second annual Western NC Trail Camp with Coach Sally McRae.

This story is about my third camp experience with Tanawha Adventures, Camp Grier and Sally… That first camp is why. The experience was mind blowing. The seemingly instant connections, the friendliness and inclusiveness of the other coaches Brandon, Jason and Adam, and Sally McRae. Sally McRae… I could write an entire essay about his amazing woman, but I simply recommend following her Instagram and hearing her on a few podcasts. However awesome you imagine her to be after you do… triple that if you ever get to meet her and share some trail miles and laughter over a meal with her. It is the kind of person she is, her positivity and light, that brings like-minded people together from all over the world to these camps. (seriously: Norway, Canada, Australia, Iowa, Texas, California and more!) I left that camp with a new family. We were tied by our experiences there at camp, but we’ve been in contact ever since. We text constantly, share our successes and failures, support each other remotely and in person, meet up in far away cities, coach each other and crew each other, and basically see each other as brothers and sisters. In 2018 a small group made it to New Mexico again with Sally, Jason, Brandon and Adam to test-run a camp in the high desert outside of Santa Fe. Amazing, jaw-dropping, stunning and again ridiculously fun and fulfilling. When we were offered “early entry” to this year’s NC camp… the impulse was automatic. I was going again, and this time a BUNCH of prior camp alums would be there, along with a BUNCH of new people I was looking forward to meeting and bonding with!

Now it’s October 2nd… The countdown timer on my phone is at zero. I’ve had a trying few weeks leading up to this. I had struggled with calf tightness and pain, derailing training for 6 weeks at the end of summer and a race I had planned, I was just now getting my legs back. I had a skin cancer cut off my nose, with failure of the flap to heal and now would have to keep a bulky bandage on for weeks. I had some ridiculousness happening at work that I wanted desperately to distance myself from. I so needed this and I was thankful I was getting go. I had the blessings of my kids and girlfriend Allison to go have an awesome time! Magnar Nedland, my Norwegian trail brother from both the NC and NM camps stayed with me for a few days prior and another 3 time alum Jennifer joined us in the morning to drive up together. For good measure we swung by the Asheville airport and picked up three more of our prior campers (Eileen, Karen and Wanda) and the 6 of us (crammed solidly into Jen’s Suburban) made our way to nearby Black Mountain for pre-camp check-in lunch and a stop at the local running shop for souvenirs. We drove up the bumpy dirt road into Camp Grier so excited that we were literally hanging out the windows, blasting music and hooting and hollering! We were like kids, and we knew what kind of fun and connection we were about to immerse ourselves in once again.

What greets the Sally Trail Camp camper is the stuff of dreams. First of all, you get to meet Sally McRae IN PERSON, and she turns out to be everything you’d hoped. She is open and gracious and showing love and greetings to everyone as they arrive. She’s laughing (that awesome laugh) as all of us crazy alums pile out of the car. There is check-in and the first of the goodies: brand new Nike Wildhorse 5 trail shoes and hats. We find our way to our cabins and out bunks where there is more loot spread out artfully on the mattress: Shirt, shorts, snacks, Spring Energy packets, sunscreen, lip balm and more. A monogrammed journal and pen to encourage us to write down our thoughts during camp. A refrigerator stocked FULL of Wicked Weed beer, La Croix, Propel, water, and a huge basket of fruit and more snacks. The boy’s cabin also had a Costco sized container of pork rinds. The Girl’s cabin somehow ended up with a 1.75l bottle of Fireball Whiskey too! We have enough time to unpack and change into running gear, and gather in one lodge to have some introductions and explanations of the days to come by Sally and the coaches. We then pile in the vans and head out for our evening shakeout run and dinner. We meet up with The Black Mountain Vertical Runners shop group run. We are busy socializing throughout the either 3 or 5-ish mile flat run in town, and then it’s off to dinner. (It’s important to note that ALL food, lodging and transportation is covered by our enrollment fee. Freedom to not carry a wallet unless we wanted to buy beer out at dinner.)

The Blue Ridge Mountains of NC

Day 2 after morning coffee and community over hot breakfast we head out for a climb of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east at the Mississippi at 6684 feet above sea level. Anyone can drive to the top, park there and have an amazing multi-directional view over the Blue Ridge Mountains. We trail runners however had the distinct pleasure of running up that mountain on a trail called "Big Tom". The trails in this area are technical and steep, winding in and out of dense forests interspersed with openings with amazing vistas and multiple photo opportunities. It was a gorgeous day, the level of camaraderie was high already and we had a blast halfway up posing for goofy shots, jumping the air to make it seem like we were miles above the ground and generally marveling at our existence in this incredible place.I had a smile fixed firmly throughout the entire run. When we reached the top and posed for the obligatory summit photos, we were treated to an amazing spread of make-it-yourself wraps, fruit, snacks and drinks at a picnic table overlooking the Black Mountain range of the Southern Appalachians. Truly special and rewarding after the strenuous but fun climbs.

That afternoon we are in the lake! Jumping off the boat dock to cool off, sitting on PFDs to float while we sip beers or LaCroix. Aaron and I grab a canoe to head across the lake to the rope swing and zip-line. Apparently there was a whale or sandbar or shift in the earth axis about 20 yards from the dock as we immediately tip over to the laughter and jeers of our trail brothers and sisters on the dock. Night brings dinner out in Black Mountain and later campfire bonding. Sally brings out a huge pile of assorted fancy chocolates and we tear into them… it’s only later that she (and we) realize that she forgot to bring out the graham crackers and marshmallows, but no one seems to care!

Day 3 yummy coffee and breakfast, and cooler temps greet us. The vans take us about an hour away to Devil’s Courthouse, an amazing rock outcropping/summit along the Blue Ridge Parkway. From there we get an inspirational talk from Sally about injury prevention and dealing with injury… what does and doesn’t define who we are, and how we overcome and grow from adversity. We’re inspired and lifted high as we pose for pics at first one, then another incredible viewpoint along the way to Black Balsam Knob and the Art Loeb Trail. We stretch out and then “accordion up” every so often, all the different speeds and skill levels finding what works for them. The coaches spread out and cover the whole konga-line so that no one gets lost or feels too slow, and Magnar can speed up at will and fly down descents ahead of us. Again we are met at the finish by a fresh spread of good eats and cold drinks. The wonderfulness of exhaustion... sitting on the ground against the trunk of a tree… with a giant burrito in one hand and a cold drink in the other… with my new best friends around me. We pile back into vans and stop by Looking Glass Falls for a “bath”. You haven’t lived ‘till you’ve dipped in the chilly waters and then let your back get pummeled by the falls 60’ above your head. Oh, and we saw an extremely rare Hellbender salamander too!

This night we go to Malt Disney… Beersneyland… The Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Here there is a giant restaurant with incredible tasty dishes, a gorgeous outdoor area, bocce courts and cornhole… oh and beer. More laughter, more bonding.

Day 4 and I want to live at Camp Grier. It’s an overcast day but the cool air feels so wonderful after the heat of Raleigh these past few months. After breakfast we are on the way to an access trail off the BRP high above Old Fort that takes us first to Pinnacle. A rocky summit that I would suspect has epic views, but we’re socked in and whited out, so instead we have fun and take a group pic before heading down to the top of Heartbreak Ridge trail. We hurtle down nearly 900’ of elevation loss over about 5.5 miles. The trail is sometimes technical, often narrow and clinging to hillsides and ravines, through lush forests, ferns and kudzu. It’s wild and wide open… adrenaline and giddiness. I somehow avoid falls more times than I can remember. It’s dancing, skipping, leaping, flying and falling all at once. When I finally meet up with others and welcome more coming down behind me, we ALL have completely trashed quads and giant grins.

This night is the Asheville night. We all get “cleaned up” and make the trek in. Some hit a few breweries while other get coffee, chocolate and do a little shopping. Then it's off to Highland Brewing Company where we really all just want to hang out with each other at this point. We’re sharing our lives, our stories, our hopes and goals. There’s more laughter, selfies, group pics, food truck food and good beer before we finally make it back to camp. But the fun doesn’t end… there’s a bottle of chilled Fireball Whiskey, and plenty of beer in the cabin fridges. There's a guitar out and goofy Flight of the Conchord songs to sing. Aaron is busting out 90s hip-hop songs, and Sally is asking the question “Can trail runners actually dance?”. It’s 1am by the time I collapse in my bunk… I just want to squeeze every bit of this in that I can.

Day 5… bittersweet gathering at breakfast… I can’t believe its the end. Not before a short 1 miles climb straight up above camp to the fire tower for an amazing view above the fog and a quad-quivering descent back to camp. Some have to leave early… others get to linger for later flights, It’s hard to say goodbye, but knowing how close I’ve stayed with everyone from the first camp, I know I have new family members I can look forward to sharing our experiences from now on. The hugs are tight, the parting words are heartfelt, there are tears.

I drive home high on the experience, sad for the end of it, hopeful for yet another chance to experience it… maybe next year… maybe a different location… one way or another I will keep this trail family close to my heart. In the days that follow I run my familiar trails in Umstead Park. The inclines seem trivial and easy. On a relatively simple section of Company Mill Trail I catch a toe and my home trails give me a little “kiss” in the form of a nice arm abrasion. Funny that I never fell on the mountain trails. I find I experience a “let-down” going back to my routine and work. Thankfully every day the Whatsapp texts roll in as we laugh about things and share new laughs, events and experiences.

Camp Grier, Tanawha Adventures and Sally McRae have a unique and special thing going with these camps. The attention to detail, the inclusiveness and encouragement, the love and laughter, the beauty of those mountains… it fills the soul and tops off the tank. Sally McRae is an amazing woman, and we all were drawn to the light and positivity she pours out in everything she does. We all feel like her family now, and her adventures and aspirations we cheer and support. I’ve been forever changed by my experiences with these people. Their influence in my world brings out the best in me. I’m saving my pennies for the next “early signup” email!

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