Back in January, I made a return trip to Helen, GA to run the Hogpen 5k/18k double dip with the Harbison Trail Runners and fellow beer/running freak the Yerg. At some point, between a mountain top snowstorm and multiple post race beers and drinking from “das boot”, Rick and Dean kept mentioning this race, the Vertical Mile. I think in my delirious, frozen and half intoxicated state, I actually thought it was just a really tough mile race in the mountains. Later, Rick kept asking me my precise birthdate and I wondered if he was with the CIA, monitoring my generally bizarre behavior. On the way back home, I learned that I was officially
forced signed up to do the Vertical Mile. Apparently “Uncle Ricky”, Rick’s race registration happy alter ego, had struck again. Twenty five dollars was the price of admission to enjoy watching me suffer.
But it was only a mile, right?? Yeah, not so much. It’s a mile of elevation gain, spread out over 17 miles and 8 loops of an insanely mountainous 2.2 mile course, called the “Stairway to Heaven” trail. But hey, 2.2 miles? As my words with friends/duathlon nemesis Tenacious J is wont to say, “how hard could it be?”. We’ll get to that shortly.
Rick and I attempted to drum up support for the vertical mile trip, but promoting a grueling 17 mile mountain race in mid-June is a bit of a hard sell. Still, Rick, Dean, Ken Hinely, Michael Nance, Justin Bishop and Jennifer reeves were game for trying their luck. Rob and I were not fans of the proposed 4:30 am start for a day trip up to Hiddenite, so we decided to go up Friday afternoon. As is de riguer for trips with the Yerg, we made sure to include two brewery stops on the way. We had quality pit stops with flights at Primal Brewery in Huntersville and a tiny place tucked in an office park called Ass Clown Brewery. Decent beers all around but I like our Conquest/River Rat/Swamp Cabbage options in Columbia better. We eventually made our way to the metropolis of Statesville, NC, where our hotel was. Still 30 minutes from the race site but it was the closest I could find. Our Holiday Inn had a lovely view of the interstate and Miss Priscilla’s adult novelty store. Beautiful. I was tired of driving so we walked to the fine dining establishment of 1849 wings and pizza. No idea about the name but I think I ate a weeks supply of calories in wings and raw fries, essentially loading up the colonic cannon for the next day. We went back to the hotel to figure our supplies for the next day – I was literally in mid sentence describing our raceday game plan when I look over and see the Yerg already in a stage 4 coma. 7:47 pm. The Yerg is a party animal. He made it all the way to 8:30 in Helen this year. I made the Ingles run myself and tried to tour Statesville, but realizing it perhaps was not the go-to tourist destination, returned back to the hotel. I was probably out by 10.
We were up early the next day and got out by 7 am from the hotel after a multi-stage colonic destruction wreaked by the 1849 wings and Ass Clown beer. We met the others from the Columbia contingent and set up our camp – complete with Gamecock tailgating canopy, chairs and the official Blue Shoes race table. The others had GU and all kinds of stuff but all I brought was water and some Gatorade. Maybe I hadn’t thought this through…
About 100 or so people at the start. Most of these people looked pretty fit, and there was huge, sheer rock wall just to the side of us. I was getting nervous. Plus, it was already pretty warm at the 8 am start time. This might be pretty tough. With the gun we were all let loose on the first part of the course. Started on pavement and then a gentle rolling trail through the forest. Oh man, this is easy. Maybe a half mile in there’s a sudden drop and climb out of what feels like a dry creek bed. There’s a slight incline through the forest for a few steps and then …. HOLY #$%^&% dear 8.2 lb screaming sweet baby Jesus.
As I should have surmised from the race site being called “Rocky Face recreational area”, here was the “Rocky Face”. Wide open and exposed to the sun, the rocky face looked to be at least double the steepness of anything I’ve ever considered running, quarry crusher included. I tried jogging the first 10 feet and my quads gave me a definitive EFF YOU, and walksies ensued. And I wouldn’t even call this a power walk. I was hunched over like Quasimoto crawling up like an arthritic grandpa, sweating like a pig. There is a bit of shade roughly halfway through, which only serves to block your view of the worst of the incline, which is so steep that you could probably crawl/climb just as fast. At the top of this part of the face was the main aid station manned by some very enthusiastic volunteers blasting an array of 70’s and 80’s rock classics. Lap 1 was Highway to Hell. Yeah, no kidding. It levels out to just a regular hill right after that and dumps you into the forest again. Oooh, maybe this is the trail back down. Let me start jogging again! NOPE. More insane climbing and the legs veto anything but my granny mall walker stride again. We come out of the forest and there’s another freaking rocky face. Mother of pearl. We hit the forest one more time and finally, FINALLY, I see the trail back down.
You’d think the trail back down would be a relief. You would be wrong. OK, so it wasn’t rocky face wish-you-were-dead bad. However, my legs, which were now a mixture of jello and hamburger from the brutal ascent, were now falling downhill as fast as I could go. Which wasn’t really that fast since it was switchback after switchback. My Sasquatch physique is perhaps less than cat-like agile, so it was more like a controlled elephant stampede. Towards the end of 2 miles and there was a just a little flat stretch. I tried to ramp up the speed there and my toe caught a root, almost sending me into the dirt and releasing multiple F bombs into the air. Following the little flat part were two more rocky faces going down, the last of which was so steep I started having flashbacks to by cliff dive in Hawaii. Finally, you hit some steps and you’re back on the pavement and through the finish line for lap 1. JUST SEVEN MORE TO GO. Holy hell what have I gotten myself into.
I should note that I was dead last among the Columbia guys at this point. Hitting the rocky face for lap 2 I managed to catch up with Yerg and Hinely, both of whom were hating life. I ramped up my awkward power walk to pass these guys, though we stayed together for most of lap 2 I believe. I had to make a portapotty stop at the end of lap 2 since I was hydrating like a machine. Temps were approaching 80 degrees already. I managed to catch Rob and Ken again on lap 3 and passed them. I was running scared on the downslope but fairly soon I was on my own. On Lap 4 I was still doing ok, basically running all the way to the rocky face, walking every bit of the rest of the long climb, then running back down. Near the bottom of lap 4 I started feeling a bit mentally foggy and I realized I didn’t prepare at all for this race. I suddenly remembered the times from the 2017 race, most of which were 3.5 hours plus. This may be a 17 miler but ran more like a marathon. A grueling , unbelievably hilly marathon. I crossed lap 4 in like 1 hour and 48 minutes, so I was probably lucky to do sub 4 hours. I hate gels but this was desperation time. The table had a ton of gels of all kinds, so I stole a strawberry kiwi roctane.
For those interested, you can make a strawberry kiwi roctane at home. Just eat a bunch of strawberries and kiwis, and maybe a couple spoons of sugar. Then throw up in a bag, and heat it to 80 degrees. Voila! I just dumped the thing in my mouth and swallowed it with some water, trying to keep it down like Kobiyashi on hot dog #50. After I was sure there wouldn’t be a reversal of fortune, I eyed a big bag of Fritos. I’m no huge Fritos fan, but I know they are salty as hell. I grabbed a fistful of corn chips in my hand and stuffed my face like a hungry raccoon, taking off running and chewing at the same time, washing it down with some water. It was not a glamorous sight. As it turns out my lunch of puke flavored roctane and Fritos was quite the winning combination. I was back to just destroyed quads and hamstrings, minus the overlay of hypoglycemic delirium. Good times.
Laps five and six were just brutal. Over two hours in, the rocky face was becoming a giant skillet, radiating the almost 90 degree heat back in your face. Lots of people were just stopped on the rocks in the few spots of shade available. I just focused on maintaining constant forward movement. Even did some side steps and backwards walking as one woman suggested to me. Anything to keep me going and avoiding sizzling on the skillet any more than I had to. It was great to have the 70’s FM radio gold contingent at the top of the worst stretch, giving out more water. I swear I must have consumed the equivalent of 6 or more full bottles, and I was perpetually thirsty. I complemented course number one of my prix fixe lunch with another serving of frites de salt paired with a nice vintage purple G2. Delicious. Loops 5 and 6 were my slowest, right at 30 minutes for the 2.2 mile loop. Blazing.
Lap 7 was the first time I started getting excited I may finish this thing. Legs were just destroyed, and I was on the verge of tripping several times a loop by now since I could hardly lift my legs. But just 2 more times? I can wrap my head around that. Lap 7 on the skillet was really bad. I looked up one time and saw some dude laying down under a bush, which I thought was funny until I realized it was Nance. Nance had caught a wicked case of the groin crampsies and was trying to let it subside. I offered help but he said he was OK. I was about ready to take on the nap on the rocks myself…if they weren’t 80 million degrees. I dropped down the steps and was jogging towards the timing arch on lap 7 when I hear a “DONT LET ME LAP YOU” behind me. I look back and see Justin descending the steps on his 8th and final lap. OH HELL NO. I took off at 5:00 pace for 25 meters to ensure I didn’t endure a lap of shame. It about killed me. I saw 3:12 in the clock which meant I should easily break 4 hours if I just keep going. I ran into J Reeves at this point, and she unfortunately had to pull out after her lap 4. I grabbed one last water and set off on my final lap. Every step was killer on the skillet and I think the 70’s rock crew were getting more water at this point because they were gone. I didn’t care because I was hell bent on finishing this thing. Once reaching the downhill I powered down the trail as hard as I could go. I think I scared a pack of people just out for a hike on the trail, as they saw a sweaty albino sasquatch bearing down on them at full speed. I very carefully went down the last steps since my legs were wet noodles by this point. Sprinted as best as I could and hit the finish right at 3:40, 19th overall.
I was just obliterated. Had to move around and try and cool down as much as possible, which is a little tough at 90 degrees. The misting stations were awesome, where Rick and Dean were camped out and cramping like crazy. Dean crushed a 3:17 while Rick did a 3:32. Justin seemed to be fine, posting a 3:12 and taking the Columbia win and 6th overall. Yerg finished soon after me at 3:44, so good thing I pushed the last loop. Mike Nance did 3:52 despite all the cramp lounging on the skillet. I’m impressed he could finish with cramping like that. Ken Hinely had another tough day (his 2017 vertical mile story is legendary) but he took 30 minutes off last year’s time in 4:29. Most importantly, he was the owner of the raccoon ravaged Fritos bag. I am forever grateful, and sorry, Ken.
Will there be a next year? I will have to see, or maybe just wait or an email from Uncle Ricky.