Sometimes you show up for a run and you realize it isn't really about the run. That is not the case at Laurel Valley. Nothing matters here except you and the 35 or so miles of trail, gorges, rivers, rocks and a state line. This race is pure and that makes it special.
I had heard about this race from friends, and read a few things online, so I sent in my check and hoped that race director Claude Sinclair would let me run. This race has no aid stations and I believe the permit only allows for so many runners, so Claude won't just let any yahoo show up and run. Luckily my race results were up to snuff and I was granted a number and a chance to wear it on a voyage through Gorges State Park.
This is a point to point race that starts near a little mountain town called Rocky Bottom, SC. If you want to stay the night in Rocky Bottom, you better get a tent or sleep in your car. My friend John and I were driven to the start by his lovely wife Katie. It was quite a drive up some winding mountain roads. Mario Andretti has nothing on Katie.
I believe the race started at 6am, but it could have been 5am. I was floating between time zones, but what mattered is that it was dark and slightly drizzling. Normally first time runners are supposed to be what is called a "Sweep". Sweeps stay in the back and make sure everyone finishes and doesn't have any problems. This also helps to ensure a sweep doesn't get lost on the course for hours, days, weeks. Again, I was lucky and Claude decided he had enough sweeps for this year and I was given freedom to run ahead.
The race starts on steps that climb out of a gravel parking lot. You go up, and then you go up some more. As a rookie I was content to stay in the middle of a big group despite the pace being slower than I would have liked. At some point you reach the top of this climb, it didn't seem like more than a mile, and at this point I ran ahead of the group on a downhill and flat section.
The reports I had heard were that the first 8 miles was the most runable section of the course so I was going to run. I was catching and passing people fairly regularly until I found a group with the unmistakeable Huntsville Track Club Mountain Mist 50k hats. We ran and chatted for awhile talking about past and future races until we hit the first big waterfall overlook at mile 8.
Perhaps it was the slow start or maybe my legs just felt that good, but I picked up the pace. The race crosses over a few major rivers (thankfully with mostly nice bridges) and along some single track and old logging roads. One thing the course does not have is any aid stations. That means you have to carry your own food and use those rivers as your water supply. There are a two options when drinking from a river, sterilize, or risk it. I got a filter called a Sawyer Squeeze and it worked great for me.
This was my first real race effort since the Rocky Raccoon 100 in February, so while I didn't really have any major time goals, I was hopeful to finish in less than 10 hours. Based on what other runners were telling me, I was on pace to finish in less than 9 hours as ran past Horse Pasture river somewhere past mile 20.
When a tree falls in the woods and I am around, it makes a very loud freaking sound! This happened and I was amazed at how long it takes a tree to fall and what it sounds like when it does fall. At first you hear a pop sound. That is followed up by a creaking where you see the tree moving ever so slowly. Luckily this particular tree, a huge hardwood, was up near the ridge and was not falling at me. As the tree continues to fall it picks up speed and gets louder until it is a roar that ends with a massive thud. When all was done the top of the tree landed just a few feet from the trail and about 40 feet behind me.
Bright white blazes mark this course, and they are pretty easy to see. Somehow, every year people get lost. This year, I was one of those people. I blame myself for trying to run and adjust my hydration pack at the same time. You see, I was out of water and there was a stream. All I needed to do was find a good access point and I would be able to refuel. As I kept running down the logging road the clear white blazes took a left. A matter of moments later I was refueled and off running up a logging road in the wrong direction.
The spider webs were the first real clue. When you are not leading a race and you are running into webs, you are probably lost. I back tracked about a half mile till I saw what I was convinced was a white blaze. Now it might have been a white blaze, but it was definitely not a bright white blaze, but I wanted to believe I was kicking that much ass and that was the reason I had not seen any other runners in 30 minutes. I kept going the wrong way, probably close to two miles the wrong way until I came to a giant mud puddle. The lack of foot prints was conclusive evidence that I was lost. I was also now very angry. I knew this detour would cost me at least an hour. I ran down the way I came and 30 minutes later I see another runner taking a left turn where I should have.
The rest of this race was really pretty, but I was all caught up in how much time I had lost and then trying to make it back up. I ran hard, went through a lot of water, and then on the next climb I pretty much died. The next several miles were pretty slow as the course seemed to go mostly up. On the next down hill I caught a few people and this at least gave me hope. Crossing the next river I was told that it was only a few miles to the finish. This news was great and I began to move fairly quickly to what I was told was a dreadfully long uphill stair climb to the end. Sadly, the stairs never came and I began to slow. It must have been about 4 miles later I came to a split in the trail. The Blue trail indicated a parking lot was less than a mile away. I probably knew this was the wrong way, but I hoped it was right. I figure it was about half way up where I got my proof. A leather clad European couple came down toward me. I asked them if there was a race finishing in the parking lot. As he took a puff of his cigarette, she said, "There is nobody else up there."
Now I'm tired, angry, lost, and breathing cigarette smoke. I quickly move down the trail and back to the original trail. Thankfully, I see another runner who directs me in the proper direction and says, "just three miles that way."
I'd like to say I was moving quickly, but by now it was a quick walk to a slow trot and I was just content to finish in under 10 hours. Twenty minutes down the trail I run into an older fellow wearing a t-shirt that said something about ultras. He tells me that I have just three miles to go. I snap at him explaining that I was told the same thing two miles ago.
You hear the roar before you see the final falls. The wonder of the last falls is that there are two of them, and it is beautiful. The bridges crossing here are tricky with large rocks leading the way to the more substantive bridge. This is not easy to navigate even for someone who had not just run 35 miles.
Once crossing the falls, you have the climb. Some of the people at the base of this climb had made it out to be the toughest thing ever. They said it would take 30 minutes to get to the top. For a sub 10-hour finish, I did not have 30 minutes. The truth is, this climb wasn't that bad. I think I got to the top in less than 20 minutes. There is an observation deck overlooking the falls about 85% of the way up. I found it funny to be striding past the causal falls spectators who were struggling to climb the four flights of stairs. The stairs open up to a road, and a few hundred yards later you are at the finisher tent. There is no finish line or clock. All that waits is clapping, smiles, and hugs.
I got in with a time of 9:54:01. I figure I did at least an extra 5 miles so I can't be too upset with the time. The better news is that my body felt good, and there were no injury issues. I absolutely loved this course. This is a pure trail race, and that makes it awesome. I'll be back next year for sure.