Marathons are hard. Even if you have run several of them, it is a distance that still requires you to have proper physical (and mental) training to complete one successfully. Having three marathons under my belt when I signed up for the New South Trail Marathon in Charlotte, North Carolina…I figured it would just be a marathon distance along an easy “trail” through the woods. However the more and more I began researching the race AFTER signing up for it, the more I realized it would be a completely different type of marathon.
Researching and Planning for the Race
I registered for the race in late December 2017 to be held at the U.S. National Whitewater Center on March 24, 2018. That gave me a good three months to train following the 2017 Run for the Ranch Marathon in Springfield, Missouri. Checking out the course map I saw that it was one big 13.1 mile (half marathon) loop that I and the other marathon runners would be doing twice to complete the marathon distance. The trail would include some up and downs all within a 100 ft elevation change, so it did not seem like there would be very large hills to ascend. Since I run around my home in the mountains nearly every day, I know my body is used to handling hills, and was not overly concerned.
After doing some research online I realized that this marathon was not going to be an easy race.
The trail itself is actually a dirt mountain bike trail that turns and winds all the way around the National Whitewater Center grounds. While the hills are not big in terms of TOTAL elevation gain, they are steep in that they jut up and down quickly. Several reviews of the course spoke of finishing times in the 5 to 6 hour range as you had to keep your bearings to prevent from tripping and falling…which turned out to be an inevitable fate of everyone running the course.
Knowing this I planned to do my usual marathon training distances, but work in some off-road trail running on gravel and dirt roads. Time did not allow me to travel to a mountain trail for some true training, so running around my own mountains at home would have to suffice.
Another aspect I learned about the race was that the aid / water stations were spaced out further than usual marathon road races. For this reason I made the decision to run the race with my hydration pack so I would not have to worry about running low on liquid. Also this would allow me to carry a few packets of energy chews to avoid bonking / crashing like I did in during the Missouri marathon.
The Trip to Charlotte and Prepping for Race Day
Since Corinne and Caitlin had a church choir performance to attend over the weekend, Christie and I drove down to North Carolina the day before the race. It took roughly 6 hours to get there and the trip was relatively smooth until 30 minutes or so outside of Charlotte where we hit construction traffic.
We checked into our hotel (Comfort Suites Airport) around 4 p.m. and I headed back out to pick up my race bib and hoodie swag from the Ultra Running Company. There was a line of runners checking in and one enthusiastic gentleman (I believe the owner of the store) trying to get people pumped up for the race tomorrow. He asked who was running the full marathon (most of those in line were running the half), and only myself and one other person raised their hand to which he laughed and said “it’s going to be a fun one!”.
The hoodie / shirt swag I received for registering for the race was very nice…quite comfortable and fit just right! Christie ordered Japanese hibachi take out for us to enjoy for dinner and it arrived just after I returned from the bib pickup. Since we were still in the middle of Lent (we had given up meat for 40 days), dinner consisted of a side salad, hibachi rice, vegetables, and salmon. It was a good meal and I felt energized, rested, and ready to go for tomorrow. After watching some Shark Tank episodes, I laid out my race attire before heading to bed, and also had Christie set her alarm as a backup (the worry about over sleeping always scares me).
Race Day Morning and a Brief Panic
I got up at 5 a.m. to eat a small breakfast three hours prior to the race. Our hotel breakfast started serving at 6 a.m., so I had a small cup of coffee in our room along with an oatmeal breakfast bar. With the race course only 15 minutes from our hotel, our plan was for me to drive over to race and park there…and Christie would catch an Uber ride over later that morning to be there for when I finished (I told her there is no sense in waiting around for 4-5 hours in the cold).
After suiting up and feeling completely ready to go, I gave Christie a kiss goodbye and went to leave…when panic hit. Where was my car key??? I could not find it and started searching everywhere checking my jacket and pants pockets. I had last had the car key when I returned from picking up the race bib. Perhaps I had left the key in the car or dropped it? I ran down the stairs (we were on the 5th floor) and frantically started looking around the car. When I couldn’t find the key there I began digging through the trash can outside the hotel figuring I could have possibly thrown the key in there by mistake when emptying out some trash from our car.
All sorts of thoughts ran through my head:
“What if I am late for the race?”
“Can I get a taxi or Uber ride over there in time?”
“All this training and I am going to miss the race!”
Then mid-trash search I got a text from Christie up in our room saying she had found the key. Turns out it was right on the table top where I had placed it by my wallet. I guess in all the excitement and brief panic I had simply overlooked it. I said a quick prayer of thanks before leaving for real this time for the race course.
The New South Trail Marathon Race Recap
Arriving at the U.S. National Whitewater Center around 7:15 a.m., I sat in my car for 15 minutes relaxing before heading over to the race start point. It was a chilly morning, temps in the low 40s, but comfortable. They had been calling for cold rain that whole day, but it looked like it would hold off until afternoon.
The full marathon was scheduled to start at 8 a.m. With 350 people starting the half marathon at 9 a.m., it was myself and 73 other people doing the full marathon. As I warmed up I looked around and noticed most people had either a hydration pack or some type of water bottle hydration belt, so I felt good about my choice to bring my pack. Also all of the other racers looked like dedicated runners…so I knew that this marathon was not one you would want to sign up to do as your first.
With seconds to go until 8 a.m. we all lined up at the starting line by the pond / lake area, and after a count down from 5, we were off! The course started with a “parade loop” around the water area and then onto some easy terrain for the first two miles. Some of the elite runners were already well ahead into the distance and I settled into a comfortable pace. Again I told myself the goals is to just finish feeling good…this race is not for time.
Learning that Tripping and Falling is “When”, not “If”
Once we made our way into miles two and three, the course quickly turned into a true trail run. Gone were the paved and graveled roads as the course now consisted of a dirt path with immediate turns up hill, steep drop offs, and sharp corners turning left or right. Roots and rocks jutted out from many points so to avoid tripping and falling I knew I was going to have to constantly keep my eyes directly in front of me. At this point I knew the race was going to be unlike any other race I had done before, so the plan was to make sure not to get injured, and take it one mile at a time…having fun along the way.
As we progressed along the trail and the pack of racers thinned out, I found myself at the tail end of a line of four other runners. Led by a female runner probably in her 40s, they began conversing about trail running and participating in ultra 50 and 100 mile races. By the looks of it (from their backs anyway), I was the youngest of the group. After one of the runners pulled off for an aid stop leaving four of us, I joined in the conversation mainly talking with the guy in front of me about his 100 miler experiences, which I found fascinating.
Around this time I made the mistake of glancing further up front than I should have and tripped on either a root or rock, tumbling to the ground. Luckily I caught myself, only dirtying my gloves and nicking my knee a bit. The runner in front of me asked if I was OK, to which I said “If that only happens once, I’ll be happy.”. He replied with some words I will never ever forget:
“It’s not a matter of if, but WHEN you will fall on a trail race.”
Shortly after he lived by his words and tripped and fell, but thankfully did not get injured and hopped right back up.
Our four runner pack stuck together at the same pace even through the steepest hill on the course known as “Goat Hill”. The hill was so steep I had to briskly hike up it instead of running. As we neared the completion of the first lap, the three runners in front of me increased their pace slightly and eventually were far enough in front that I lost sight of them. Knowing they were experienced trail runners this did not discourage me as I had made it half way through the marathon and would now need to do the final loop solo. I managed to text Christie a message via my watch that I would be looking at a finishing time of over 5 hours and not to worry as I was having a good time.
Finishing and Feeling Accomplished
For the second and final loop of the marathon I was mostly on my own. Occasionally I would pass another runner and tell them “good job, keep at it!” or be passed by some mountain bikers (which by the way I find incredible that they can speed along a trail like that). I tripped a few other times along the course, never falling, but needing to catch myself with a few stutter steps. Passing each mile marker I remember thinking the miles on a trail sure take a lot longer than on the road.
As I made my way up Goat Hill for a second time I passed a few half marathon runners. One of them was really struggling so I gave them some encouragement that there was only a mile or so to go (encouraging myself at the same time). I could hear the music coming from the finish line area, so I knew I was close. Picking up the pace I neared the main water front area and could see Christie standing up on the hill waving and taking pictures. This made me really happy and I crossed the finish line energized with a finishing time of 5:32:28.
Race volunteers handed me my finishers medal and I grabbed a Powerade cup and two wrapped up sandwiches. Christie made her way towards me and I gave her a hug and a kiss. I felt really good. For being on my feet the longest I have ever been for a race (over five hours), I felt sore, but not so bad that I couldn’t walk. I attribute that to a lot of the training I did prior to the race, with some weeks totaling over 50 miles. There was also no severe cramping like past marathons, as I had made sure to hydrate and fuel properly this time around. While my time was not the best, considering that this was my first ever trail marathon and that I felt tired but not injured or super sore, this race was a success to me!
One final humorous anecdote: The wrapped up “sandwich” I grabbed after the race I opened up and began to scarf down. Christie asked what they were, and then I realized I may have just ruined my “not eating meat” 40 day lent sacrifice. It tasted like chicken salad…but before I could put it down, a race volunteer said to help myself to more veggie wraps. The “sandwich” was actually a wrap made with vegetables and a chick pea / bean spread. So I ate two of them.
Finishing Time: 5:32:28
Overall Place: 30 of 73
Male 35-39 Division: 6 of 10 (Fast runners in my division!)
Photos from Race Day
This race is part of Aaron’s 50 Marathons in 50 States Challenge:
Click on a state to see a recap of that marathon.