I wanted to start a new series of posts on this blog, with the principle goal of dissecting trails I will be racing on in the upcoming months, The Tortoise and the Hare 50k and Mystery Mountain Marathon. These two big races for the year are both held on local trails that easily can be driven to in a few hours or less. In preparation for these races, physically and mentally, I wanted to run some of the race course and get a feel for the trail and what I will have to do on race day to complete the race.
To this point I have never ran a race, trail or road, with a distance greater than a half marathon, 13.1 miles or 21 kilometers. I have been training with my long runs hovering between 18-25 miles though and the remaining unknown is the terrain. At this point in my running, I am a very slow and deliberate trail runner often hovering above fifteen to twenty minutes per mile pace depending on terrain.
For this initial dissection I figured I would detail my experiences with the trail race course for the Tortoise and the Hare 50k, ran on the Aska Trail System up in Blue Ridge Georgia. 2014 will be the inaugural running of this event so there are no existing race recaps to use as a guide for this race. From my discussions with the race directors I pieced together the major race components. Below I have tried to dissect the course into is component pieces and have often focused on specific sections of the course. Unlike race day I did not run my 25 miles of this course in a linear fashion as I really wanted to get a feel for the Stanley Gap climb and the two loops that provide the bulk of major miles for this trail. The race course will start off the Upper Green Trail and run towards Deep Gap on race day. I chose to park at Deep Gap as it allowed me easy access to the Stanley Gap Trail, Flat Creek Trail and pieces of the Upper and Lower Green Mountain trails leading to the Lower Creek Loop trail. My segments will not always follow the same order as the official race course but I tried to run the pieces in the best logical order that should be close to the race course on race day.
My research of the Aska trail system often turned up with multiple references to the difficulty of the Stanley Gap trail, a shortened version of the older Rich Mountain trail. The race course will run into Deep Gap, where I parked and continue up the Stanley Gap trail, so I figured I would start from Deep Gap and experience the climb I had heard so much about.
The first 3 miles of this trail is a non-stop uphill 1160 foot climb. In most places the overall grade is not too bad and its fairly easy to run or power walk to the summit. I made the mistake of using this climb as my warm up, resulting in a much slower struggle to the top. On race day I will have warmed up on the Upper Green Mountain trail and the connector trail before tackling this climb.
After getting to the top, the trail merges with the Benton McKye trail for a bit and then starts its descent down into Stanley Gap and towards a gravel road where its indicated there will be an aide station. This downhill is a really gotcha as there were numerous patches of small to medium shifting rocks that easily moved underfoot as I tried to pick up speed going down hill and numerous roots were visible to trip me up. More than a few times my ankles rolled, fortunately I was wearing good trail running shoes that helped to stabilize my ankles from rolling too extremely.
After getting to the gravel parking lot its time to turn around and climb back up and over the mountain again. This time the uphill is only about two miles, but the terrain is a little bit unstable. There is room to make up missing time after going over the top of the mountain from this direction.
While heading down the steep Stanley Gap trail I came back across the connector leading to the Flat Creek Loop trail. There were actually two connectors, this one and another one closer to Deep Gap, but I chose this one as it seemed like a better place to access the loop. One thing I was uncertain about was the direction this loop would be ran on race day so I chose to run the loop in counter clockwise direction, taking a right from the connector onto the loop trail. The difficulty with this decision was a sharp climb going up about 800 feet in 1.5 miles. After this the trail had a mild descent before climbing to the connector.Most of this trail was pretty easy to run on, but there were numerous segments with boulder fields and root traps sprawled through out.
This was one of those areas where I had to decide which direction to run the loop as I was uncertain which direction it would run on race day. There is a spot that gets a little confusing as a side trail leads to a second connector with the Stanley Gap trail lower down. Overall this section was pretty easy, except some areas required careful footing.
After five miles on the loop I climbed up the connector and continued down the Stanley Gap trail to Deep Gap where I refilled my water and grabbed some more food. From there I continued onto the Lower Green Mountain Trail and climbed up 368 feet to a series of very confusing signs. The climb was fairly easy and terrain was not that difficult, but the signs made little sense. I wish I would have grabbed a picture, but there was an arrow pointing left and one pointing down to the right and another pointing right.. to tell you the truth this sign was the most confusing part of this section. I eventually figured out where to go just to realize I missed the turn off to the Long Branch Loop and the path I was on was a dead path that is not part of the trail system.
Eventually I made my way down to the Long Branch Loop, roughly 600 feet descent. Again I had to decide which direction to run the loop and so I chose to run it clockwise this time. This section was relatively easy and should be an easy 3 miles of running. I don’t think direction will matter too much as this course was pretty easy to run either way. Similar to the other loop, there was a confusing section where there was a split off with a non-marked trail.
I ran this loop twice before I climbed the connector and headed back up to the Lower Green Trail. During the race I would continue down this trail to the finish line but I parked at Deep gap so back in that direction I went. This section was not too hard of a climb and eventual descent after twenty four miles and it got dark really quickly, so I strapped on my headlamp and finished the run in the dark.
As I mentioned I did not run much of the start of this course and instead focused on the major climb on the race course and its following two loops. The Green Mountain Trail sections did not seem that difficult and had manageable climbs and descents compared to the Stanley Gap Trail and the Flat Creek trail loop, even with twenty miles on my legs at this point. I think the biggest challenge of this race will be the Stanley Gap Trail and its monstrously long climb and some of the areas where the trail is a boulder field. Overall this course will be challenging but fun. I cannot wait to see how the foliage and views are transformed with fall colors. I would only run these trails with a descent pair of trail running shoes and it might be a good idea to bring a source of water when running these sections. I know I will pack a jacket and warm weather hat as the elevations could get cold.
I know I am a slow runner, but I think this race and its course will be a blast to run on and complete my first 50k race. I cannot wait for this event. I hope I can get some more training up on these trails before the race. Til next time.