Wednesday, February 23, 2011


First Marathon – Pilot Mountain Payback, Pilot Mountain State Park, North Carolina, February 19, 2011

Beginning in November 2010, I decided to begin training for my first marathon. Being an avid hiker, I wanted to choose a race held on trails. The race held at Pilot Mountain in February fit the bill and I had just enough time for a 16 week training schedule. Little did I realize this was not an ordinary marathon.

Several weeks prior to the race, I had built up to 19 miles on a couple of my long training runs. Most of these long runs were done on hilly trails at Morrow Mountain SP about an hour from home to try to mirror what I would face on race day. Then it was time to begin the taper – a 2-3 week period before the race of cutting back mileage for rest. During the taper though, I was very busy having two weeks of business trips to Pennsylvania and Texas. Not only is it hard to train while traveling, it is also hard to eat smart. Consequently during the last two weeks before the race, I had several nagging twinges and pains in my knees and feet. A week before the race the training plan called for an easy 8 miles, but I bagged it about halfway in due to the aches and pains and not wanting to do anything to keep me from race day. The next six days I decided to not run at all even though the schedule called for 3 easy runs of about 3-5 miles. I hoped it would help.

Race day rolled around and I felt about as good as I could hope. My wife Kristie was my driver and cheerleader for the day as we drove the 1.5 hrs to the race site. There were about 83 signed up for the full marathon and another 130 or so for the half-marathon. It was a chilly start somewhere in the 30’s but the sun was out. I was shivering before the race – probably from the cold and the nerves. Many runners were jogging or stretching. Being a relatively new runner I wasn’t sure what to do but I sure wasn’t going to go jogging and add any mileage to my day before the race! As the 9am start approached the race director said a few words while all the runners gathered around casually. I made sure I was standing out of the way near the back. Then out of nowhere we hear GO!!!

And there we all went and I was glad to finally get moving to build up some heat. And then we hit the first creek crossing at 50 yards; there was no avoiding getting your feet wet in this one. Following the creek was a nice, steep climb but it was short lived. The first mile or so the trail does a quick loop and comes back down a hill near the start/finish area before crossing a couple more creeks (there is a pattern here). At about 2 miles racers then follow the Corridor Trail about 6 miles to the base of Pilot Mountain. The Corridor Trail rolls up and down but the hills are short for the most part. The tread is nice, not too rocky but there are 4-5 more stream crossings. It was about 2-3 miles in when my right calve started tightening up like a cramp. It was strange because my calves have never cramped during training. At the 5 mile aid station(AS) I made a point to stock up on bananas and also refilled my water bottle with Gatorade. I had a handheld 22 oz water bottle which I drank and refilled 7 times during the race. The 5 mile point had taken about an hour which for me was a bit too fast so in the back of my mind I knew I needed to pull back my pace a bit. My goal was just to finish within the 7 hour cutoff.

Either the cramp went away or I forgot about it. I was talking with another runner who I would later meet whose name was Jim. Come to find out later, his wife Jade and my wife just happened to meet each other at the start and decided to hang out together and meet us at various road crossings during the race to cheer us on. Crazy! I don’t remember much about the conversation other than one item in particular concerning the course. The marathon runs out the Corridor trail, then around and up Pilot Mountain, back down the back side of the mountain on a different trail than it went up, then rejoins the same Corridor Trail back to the start/finish. The point where the course leaves the Corridor Trail to begin the climb at mile 8, I knew there would be the chance that the lead marathon runners may already be done and back around the mountain to this point (mile 19.5) by the time I was just getting there. It was a small mental hurdle to make it to that point and not see those lead runners (I hear the winning time was 3:05, insane). That was also the turn around for the half marathoners. We met many of the half marathoners on their way back already with several of the leaders showing some serious pain and intensity in their faces.

The climb up the mountain was intense, very rocky at points. I had previously trained on the course once before which made it a bit easier from a mental standpoint. I walked almost all of the uphill portion of it as did many of the runners around me. Passed a few guys while walking up, one was a soldier from Ft Bragg. I thanked him for protecting our country. As the trail approaches the summit parking lot, it steepens further with many high wood steps. To my surprise, Kristie and Jade were clapping and cheering me on at the summit parking lot AS (mile 12.5). After grabbing more bananas and Gatorade for the 3rd time, I headed for the summit knob. The trail wraps around the cliffs of the summit knob and then descends the Ledge Spring Trail which runs along the bottom of a cliff with many high rock steps to descend. The views from here are amazing! I then passed two older runners coming up the wrong way; I meant to say something to them but didn’t. For some reason my brain didn’t make the connection. And then there was the voice in my head telling me I was the new guy out here, I might very well be the one going the wrong way.

Continuing downhill on the Grindstone and Grassy Ridge Trails, they wrap around the north, then east, then south sides of the mountain. Mile 17.5 AS came along and my hamstrings were feeling sketchy but I had more pressing issues. An extended restroom break was necessary, costing me about 5 minutes but better than the alternative. More bananas and Gatorade. The next section I was really wondering if the hamstrings would cost me the finish. They felt overstretched at times and I wondered how far I could push them. I prayed that the Lord would help me finish the race and kept moving. I didn’t see any runners during this section except for four guys running together coming towards me running an extremely fast pace. They didn’t have race numbers on so I nodded to them and they said Good Job as they passed. I was later told these were the course sweepers making sure all the runners were okay along the trails. Nice.

Making it back to the mile 19.5 AS where the course rejoins the Corridor Trail, Kristie and Jade were there cheering me on. I was tired but couldn’t help but smile. More bananas and Gatorade along with a shot of Mountain Dew and M&M’s this time at the counsel of my wife. While I was there, Jim (Jade’s husband) came up and we were formally introduced. He was in and out of the AS in a blink, while I messed around – what can I say, I’m a rookie.

The next 6ish miles were running the Corridor Trail back – the one with all the stream crossings. I managed to run (a very loose use of “run”) most of the rest of this with the exception of a handful of steep climbs that were walks. Things were starting to run together in this section but my hamstrings weren’t bothering me quite as much and I knew I would finish. Last full AS at 22ish miles I loaded up on, yes, Gatorade and bananas but also threw down some salty potato chips. I believe those may have been the best chips I’ve ever ate. Passed a few guys while walking the uphills and exchanged some encouragements. Nearing the finish, the course leaves the trail and onto the dirt road we’d started on. Only a couple stream crossings left and I didn’t even bother to find the shallow parts. Plow right through kicking up water on my legs. Oh yea. I can see the finish line and I just keep my steady slow pace. My wife sees me and runs out to run the last 50 yards or so with me. About 5 hrs and 45 minutes, 26.2 miles was finished! Thank the Lord! It felt great; great to stop. I had a couple pieces of cold pizza, some pretzels, and a can of soda while chatting with Jim and Jade and a few other finishers. For the next little while we watched as others finished. Several runners were using this race as a training run for ultramarathons. I was impressed. They were saying how crazy I was for choosing this as my first marathon and now that it is over I can see that. There were several other first timers out there though so at least I wasn’t alone. I hobbled over to the car and my wife drove us home. Time to pick out the next race.


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