As it seems, the fateful night was sometime in mid-April. The Ville to Ville Relay, the beer-themed race from Asheville to Greenville, where my team, the Carebeers, where crashed out in an air bnb in Black Mountain, NC. As the Airbnb was hosted by one of Matt’s old college friends, and in the spirit of the theme of the weekend, many beers were had that night. Just before I went to bed, Tracy McKinnon tagged me in a facebook post about a mountain 50k called the Table Rock Ultra. With craft IPAs running through my veins, I impulsively threw down the 90 bucks and declared myself an ultramarathoner- to- be. In classic Alex fashion, I woke up the next morning to the confirmation email and asked the same question David Byrne asked in 1983, “MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE??”
Months passed, and I thought surely I would train for something as monumental (for me) as running 31 miles. Bear in mind, I don’t really match up well to an ultra marathon. I live for garmins, certified courses, chip timed starter mat go-all-out road races. I’m not used to slogging all day in the woods and worrying about food and chafing. But September kept approaching, and I wasn’t getting my ass out in the woods much. To my credit, I did the Grandfurther 25k in July and the Vertical Mile 18 miler in June so I guess these 3-4 hour runs could qualify as “training”. But hey, no one is going to mistake either of these for ultras. Plus, Table rock was supposed to be equally hard terrain and double the distance. The last marathon I did was in 2016 and the longest run I did on the roads all summer was probably 16 miles. This was going to be ugly.
But as underprepared as I was, I am also equally stubborn. No way was I going to back down, though it sure was tempting to opt for the 30k they also had. But 30k finishers got a medal and 50k finishers got a HOODIE. I was all about getting an ultra hoodie. All my 5ker friends would be so jealous.
I drove up to Morganton the night before with fellow race traveler/bad influence Rob “THE YERG” Yerger. We drove up early on Friday, dropped off our stuff at a decidedly sketch Days Inn and headed straight to Catawba Brewing for packet pickup. Like the uber nerds that we are, we got there right as they started at 5pm. We did a flight of Catawba beers and ran into Soleil from the Harbison Trail runners as well as Jen Ward and Betsy Long from the Camden-Lugoff crowd. Tour de Morganton part II was at Fonta Flora Brewery with more of the HTR crew with Ken and Jill Hinely, and Randy Smith. I was perfectly fine to call it a night after that, and Yerg is usually dead to the world at 8 pm, but he really wanted to try yet another brewery, appropriately named Sidetrack Brewing. Between the breweries and a Greek feast later at Yianni’s, this was probably not an optimal prerace strategy.
Sure enough my sleep was crap, I was all dehydrated and we won’t speak of the colonic destruction that commenced at the Morganton Days Inn. With about 4 hours of sleep, an unsteady tummy and my body generally a ball of anxiety we headed to the race start/finish, Steele Creek Campground. We got there well before the start (7 am), and it was dark and already uncomfortably warm. I am not an anxious person, but I was suddenly struck with the realization I had no idea what I was doing and was probably woefully unprepared for what was supposed to be a 7-8 hour brutal race. I kept going over my gear, which included a Nathan hydration vest, a couple of granola bars, some Fritos (my survival food from vertical mile), band aids and toilet paper. I said a little prayer to my colon I wouldn’t have to use that last one. Soleil and Rob were trying to calm me down but I was pretty much a wreck.
After a short pre-race briefing we were off. I was in full jog mode from the get go, 10ish minute pace. The first mile was through the campground and across a completely open grass field. The majority of the HTR group was ahead from the start but I was dead set on my “all-day long” pace. Well, until we hit the first creek crossing and trail area. All of a sudden everybody was walking and I’m trapped in a long conga line. My mind can’t wrap itself around walking this early into a 31 mile race , so I pull off like a jungle elephant and stampede through about 10 people and break out into a clearing. The rest of the initial 4.8 miles is on a rolling grassy wide open road to the first aid station, “Gods Country Road” (cue the Joshua Tree). I had decided to break the whole race down into aid stations, written on my arm per Yerger protocol. Speaking of Yerg, I got frisky in the first few miles and passed him and Hinely. I felt pretty good early on, since I had about 4 days rest leading up to the race. I managed to pass Yerg and Hinely, and I could see Dean pretty far ahead. I cruised into God’s Country road feeling pretty fresh. Filled up my water bottles. I figured out pretty early on that my hydration bladder tasted all plasticky and probably less than sterile so I was basically carrying 5 pounds of dead weight. Still, I was so afraid of my grandfurther dehydration incident that I wasn’t going to bail on the H2O just yet. The next station was at just over 10 miles. This section was initially a rolling mountain road but quickly narrowed down to single track and multiple creek crossings. Rob had told me there were two creeks but there had to be at least 4 in this section. There was one technical part near a huge waterfall and I had minor PTSD from my cliff dive in 2013. Me and a guy named Kellyn from Raleigh were pretty much running together, which made sense since we realized our road racing times were pretty much identical. I’m jibbajabbing some story when all of a sudden its SONOFABITCH WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT. Sure enough 4-5 wasps decended upon me and machine gun stung me. I put some pep in my step and plunged into the creek in an attempt to wash out the venom. Yeah, that doesn’t work. Felt like someone jabbed me with a needle in my leg and arm the rest of the race. Awesome. A little while later, a few guys had caught up with us, when suddenly I hear BEES BEES MOVE MOVE MOVE. Me and Kellyn launch into a freaking 50k sprint, launching over technical trail as fast as possible while 5 middle aged dudes ran for their lives. These bees were not effing around. Kellyn went back and attended to one of his friends, who apparently was throwing up and not doing well afterward. Hope he was ok. I pushed on and eventually reached a Barkley style gate with a turn onto another mountain road going uphill. There were a few people coming back down already, which I initially thought might be 30kers, but that didn’t make sense with them starting 15 minutes behind. I soon realized it was a short out and back to the aid station. I trudged up the road super slow but maintained at least a jog. I never saw Tracy but Dean showed up just before I hit the 2nd aid station. This was 10 plus miles in, so I figured some food might be good. They had PB and J quarter sandwiches so I stuffed a few of those down and refilled my water bottles. The next several miles were all wide open mountain road. I thought about tracking down Mr Schuster but remembering the elevation profile, I was plenty skeered. I knew the 16 mile aid station to the table rock summit at mile 19 was a couple thousand feet elevation gain. Yeah, that wasn’t going to be flat and fast. I managed to run/jog the whole rolling mountain road section all the way to mile 16. Tummy started acting up a little and I started scouting out some poop friendly area but I couldn’t imagine the nightmare of trying to pop a squat with my wrecked legs and everything soaked with sweat and creek water. YUCK. Luckily the colon calmed down. Hit up some more PB and J’s and a couple shots of coke at the mile 16 aid station. I knew the next aid station was the summit. And damn they weren’t kidding with that elevation profile. Walksies hit immediately as I was hit with a trail straight up the GD mountain. Amazingly the race leader passed me coming back down just as I hit the summit trail. Dayum, dude.
So it was about 3 miles to the summit, but damned if it wasn’t my slowest 5k ever. I walked most of the first part en route to a 25 minute mile. Blazing. At some point I decided to jettison the funky hydration bladder and dumped a couple of pounds. After the initial climb were some possibly runnable areas, though I was also having to let the lead pack pass. The female lead was killing it though was sporting a bloody leg. #hardcore status for sure. I eventually met up with Tracy, who had to be a couple miles ahead of me. He warned me of the “conga line” of tourists up ahead who were not too keen on letting racers pass. Sure enough, a whole group of older hikers were also navigating the summit trail not too far ahead. By this time they were accepting their unfortunate timing and were pretty good giving the sweaty hydration pack crew the right of way. It seemed to take forever, but suddenly the trail broke open into an incredible view for miles around. They had a photog just under the summit and I tried my best not to look like hell, though the result was mixed.
I took a few pics at the top and some horrendous selfies before descending back down. The actual aid station was in the table rock summit parking lot about a quarter mile down. The Rock Hill Striders had an awesome spread with everything you could want. More PB and J’s and coke with more water refills.
Dean passed me not too far from the aid station, and I think he actually went the wrong way initially. He is a master downhill runner though, so I knew he would kill me most of the way back down. Sure enough, I struggled not busting my ass the whole 3 miles back down to the mile 16 aid station, which was also around mile 22.
I saw Jim Cobb not too far behind me, followed by Yerg, both Hinelys and Marion on the way down. At the 16/22 mile aid station I had to briefly convince one of the race dudes that I wasn’t on my way up. I told him I may have a sasquatch physique and a food baby full of PB and J squares, but this chunky boy can run. I guess he believed me.
The next section was promised as being nice and downhill, as we were cutting off a lot of distance of the initial 19 mile climb and making it back in 12. Sure enough there was a much more run-friendly soft trail for miles 22-25 and I actually managed to jog almost all of it. I was actually feeling pretty decent at this point, maybe all the “rest” from the power hike up the summit and the PB and J fuel was kicking in. Eventually I made it down to the area where the original mile 6 was and I knew we were headed back towards home. This would be reassuring, except the good feeling of the early 20’s miles was fading quickly. The heat of the day had really ramped up and I could feel the body asking me WTF did I think I was doing. It was refreshing somewhat to trudge through some of the cold creeks but I could feel a case of the cramps coming on as I stepped up out of one of the crossings. Ruh roh. At least we weren’t back in bee city again.
Mile 25 greeted me with a rolling gravel road that seemed a lot more uphill than I remembered it the first time. Of course I was going in reverse this time. Walksies ensued on every climb, but I tried to run all the flats and downhills. There was another guy with me at this point and we formed a spontaneous soccer mom power walk group on the mountain road. Finally we made our way to the Gods Country Rd aid station again, the first and last one, 4.8 miles from the start/finish area. I was so close to home, but I was definitely a little worried. The heat was getting brutal, there was little shade coming back, and every part of my being wanted to stop right there. I loaded up on my last course of PB and J’s with a side dish of chips and coke, double fisted some water and headed out.
And wow it was whole lot of suck. First part out of Gods Country was a long, grassy and sunny incline that just killed me. I had gone through the aid station at 6 hours flat, and figured I had a chance at a sub 7 finish, but even that 12ish min pace average was highly questionable at the rate I was going. Walksies were happening every incline. I at least tried to approximate a jog on the downhills but hell even those were getting difficult with the jello under me that passed for my legs. I kept eying the Garmin and trying desperately to make it to each mile. 27…28…29… I managed to catch a few 30k stragglers but I wasn’t exactly blowing by them either. Right around mile 30 there was a patch of shady singletrack and a creek crossing I recognized from the first 10 minutes or so of the race. SO CLOSE. To the finish, and unfortunately also collapsing. Almost cramped in the creek again, but as I pulled out of the water I could see the field right before the campground. I decided that, hell or high water, I was going to run the rest in. And man, its not as close as it seems. Probably about a mile, and over a completely open, long grass field in the 85 degree heat. I summoned all the 95 degree famously hot Columbia afternoon training runs and embraced the hell. All out pace at this point was 9ish minutes, but I was going to finish dammit. Finally, FINALLY, the road turned and across the bridge I went into the campground. I glanced at the Garmin and saw a 6:59 and ramped it up a touch, an extremely feeble blue shoe kick. I was crushed though, because the clock flipped over to 7:00:00 literally 20 meters away from the finish arch. I crossed in a mixture of delirium and euphoria, grabbed my finisher hoodie and made a bee line for the shade. SO GLAD TO BE DONE. I crashed next to Dean, who had finished in 6:47 or so. Dean was calling out my name in a fog, laid out flat on his back. I sat down and my legs proceeded to straight lock up. Literally couldn’t move.
Thankfully Soleil, who unfortunately had a DNF, as well as Jen Ward (30k) helped us get water and not die. I’m forever thankful. Tracy, who finished in 5:45 and must have already showered, got me my celebratory beer. It took a good 15 minutes for me to return to the land of the living, but I was so excited to finally call myself an ultramarathoner! Best part – my official results had me at 6:59:26, breaking 7 hours after all. 40th out of 215.
In the 50k overall, Reese Wells won in 5:00:56, with women’s champion Amanda Morris finishing in an amazing 5:02:58, third person to cross the finish. Male masters was won by Sonny Girardi in 5:47:15, with our own Tracy Mckinnon less than a minute back. Female masters was won by Valerie Wrenholt in 6 hours flat.
Tracy McKinnon 5:48
Dean Schuster 6:48
Alex McDonald 6:59
Sid Tyner 7:00
John Corbett 7:06
Raymond Hrin 8:01
Jill Hinely 8:05
Jared Holt 8:07
John Ryan 8:27
Martin Herbkersman 8:28
Scott McDOnald 8:28
Rob Yerger 8:28
Andy Richards 8:33
Ken Hinely 9:10
Marion Hinson 9:10
Jonathan Walvoord 9:19
Lets not forget the 30k – Chad Motz won among the men in 3:24, with Jennings Garry winning the women’s title in 3:38.
Columbia area finishers:
Alfie Hipps 4:47
Bridgett Bailey 5:06
Chris Claypool 5:16
Jennifer Ward 5:44
Kathryn Britt 5:50
Will Britt 5:50
Betsy Long 6:14
Rhonda Ware 7:19
Overall this was an awesome race – scenic, well-organized and awesome swag. Great post race tacos and beer as well. Major props to Tanawha Adventures for putting on the race and White Blaze Marketing for providing on-course pics.