Climb the Clay was previously known as the Earth Fair 8k for several years – a trail race through Saluda Shoals Park in Irmo. A couple of years ago, they scrapped the Earth Fair (this was a festival at the park, not the crunchy supermarket, that’s Earth FARE) and that left the race all by itself. Luckily, Smith Harden, the race director and a Saluda Shoals ranger, kept the race afloat and renamed it “Climb the Clay”. “The Clay” in question is a miserable mountain of slippery red mud in the middle of the park. It happens in the first mile of the race and sucks every bit of life out of you right away. But hey, there’s no mistaking it’s there, so might as well advertise it.
I really like this race. Its small, has no chip timing and usually draws the same people every year. Held during the Cooper River Bridge weekend, it’s that race’s polar opposite. Yes, I love the little mom-and-pop races for trophy hunting purposes, but I also like the personal feel of small, local, non-corporate events like this one. No zumba warmups, no gimmicks, no generic running-themed songs blasting out of a start line loudspeaker. Just a bunch of people who actually enjoy running and racing by itself. I know…novel concept.
I do need to mention it is a trail race, which is a huge handicap for me. My lack of agility and grace on singletrack switchbacks has been well documented elsewhere. Little short and light dudes can scamper all over the forest. I am more elephant stampede through the jungle. Still, I have had a couple of overall podium finishes here. Most notable was an epic throwdown between myself and the Code in 2013, where I just missed out catching a dying Darrell as he bonked into the win. Our battle was set up by David He, who so graciously decided to take himself out by running (in the lead) the wrong way with headphones, impervious to our screams to right him. At least we tried.
I showed up about 45 minutes to showtime, and damn it was cold for late March. Mid 30’s. Those bridge runners must have been hating life waiting out in the corrals. As soon as I finish my registration at the table, I turn around and I’m temporarily blinded by the sun. Approaching is the shadow of an all-too familiar silohuette, my masters nemesis, Brandenburg. In an all-out war of Columbia area running psychiatrists, JB has made it his mission to crush any chance I have at winning masters on the Tour de Columbia. He’s now in the triple digits. I have 3 points thanks to my March birthday and my epic fail at Get to the Green. I really need him to start missing races, so I can pull off the Blue Shoes special: quantity over quality. Oh well, still 8 months left. Bring it.
Also on board for this race is JB’s neighbor and fellow Wes Spratt abuser Tom Beattie. Wife Barb is also there to pick up a perennial podium spot. Dina Mauldin, Melinda Petruzzi, Rocky, Stephanie “Stevie Dee” Dukes, Pete Poore, Henry Holt, Brigitte Smith, Mario and Jennifer Tudor, Joe Naylor and Sue Porter are there to represent the Columbia Running Club. About 50 total signed up.
The course, typically an 8k, has been shortened to a 5k because of construction. I’m not totally sure, but I think the Silver Fox 5k course was mostly used – that race and CTC have a lot of overlap anyway.
With the start, Brandenburg and quite a few kids blast out in front of me as we make our way down the power line cut towards the eponymous mountain ahead. The course is as expected – it rained a ton the night before and there is a lot of puddle/mud dodging right away. I try not to get too carried away early on, and I let JB go..for now. Sure enough, the clay monster rears its ugly head just a half mile into the race and all those speedy kids suddenly arent so speedy. I power up the clay wall with the freak quads and do well for a while. Unfortunately the last little bit sent me into oxygen debt overdrive and I’m panting like an overheated grizzly by the top. The Clay has taken its toll – only JB and a high schoolish girl are ahead of me.
After a brief open stretch at the top, we plunge into the forest for the first time. I hit mile 1 soon after but I didnt bother to look at the Garmin. The first half of mile 2 is all rolling, winding single track. There are a couple of screaming downhill stretches and one sudden, near 180 degree turn that brings me to a virtual stop. I feel sorry for the girl in front of me. The whole time she must hear some giant dude breathing down her neck and matching her every step. But she isnt giving in a bit. My 19ish 5k times typically has me racing high school cross country girls all the time. And they are brutal. Elbows flying they will cut you off and leave you for dead if they can. Just evil. I still have nightmares of the Bythewood 5k a few years back when Dutch Fork’s Hope Whisman, all of like 14 years old, mowed me down in the last half mile. Not a proud moment. I also got the beat down by DF’s Anna Jenkins and Bri Hartley a couple of times last year. Epically chicked.
At about 1.5 miles the course spits you back out at the bottom of the clay mountain and makes you do another hairpin turn, which I’m sure I executed ever so gracefully. Or not. More sloppy but open trail, then a beautifully straight and paved section. Brandenburg is visible but way up ahead. I’m still riding this poor high school girl’s back like an overgrown monkey. Finally we hit the 2 mile mark and the girl either tires some or just cant take the emotional trauma of being stalked by an Albino Sasquatch. Daria Yoder, I am forever sorry for your nightmares.
With a mile to go, I start ramping up the pace and trying to track down JB. Unfortunately he has a monster lead but I can feel him reeling back in some. The course winds some through the woods but has more open stretches. There’s two crazy mini-ravines where I nearly bust my ass. We hit a straight section at about 2.5 miles in and I see I’ve made up some pretty nice ground on Brandenburg. I’m sucking some pretty serious wind by now but I try to throw down the best I can. Forget the puddle dodging now – I’m plowing straight through the mud – trail blue shoes be damned. Apparently the volunteer temporarily led JB in the wrong direction because when I hit a road area he’s pretty close. Unfortunately I suddenly recognize where we are, near the entrance guard shack, and I know I have no chance. Sure enough, I turn the corner just in time to see Jeff cross the finish, defending his 2014 title.
I cross the line about 20 seconds later in 21:26, 2nd overall. Anytime I end up on the overall podium I’m happy, though seeing JB claiming another victory isn’t much fun. Kind of like getting a Ken Vowles beat down.
Daria Yoder did claim 1st female, despite never being able to enter the forest again without rabid grizzy bear flashbacks. Not entirely sure on the age groups or other overall winners, since only names on the results. I think Jennifer Conrick won female masters. Melinda Petruzzi, Mario and Jennifer Tudor, Rocky, Henry, Joe Naylor, Tom Beattie, Barb, Stevie Dee, Pete and Sue Porter all won AG awards as I recall. Awesome pint glass awards again this year. Thanks to Smith Harden for putting on this cool race. He goes out and paints every root and marks every turn, so major props go out to him for all his hard work!