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Guest Post: Table Rock Ultra 50-Miler

This trail race report comes our way from guest poster Jeff Nagy, a veteran of several Salomon Rock/Creek Trail Series races attempting his first 50-miler. Thanks for the write-up, Jeff!

The Table Rock Ultras 50 mile and 50K took place this past Saturday October 18th, 2014 in the beautiful Pisgah National Forest near Morganton, NC. Benefiting the Mountains to Sea Trail, this race was revamped this year and as forewarned was definitely a challenge. After three years of a pavement and forest service road course — and a CR of 7:27:06 — the new course promised to be an entirely different animal.

Having recently moved to the state of North Carolina, I was eager to line up a trail race set for the best time of year to run in my opinion. Living in Georgia, I was fortunate to race in a number of different Rock/Creek events, and was hoping to find some challenges around my new home state. The race directors for TRU put a lot of love into setting up this course and were eager to show off some of the more technical terrain and beautiful fall landscapes of the Linville Gorge area of Pisgah National Forest.

Aiding their marketing for the race was an amazing video put together by RD Brandon Thrower and Mark Rostan, complete with drone shot aerial footage of the Table Rock Summit and a contagious folky running song that just made you want to get up and go run this thing. Seriously, check out this video.

Table Rock Ultras from Brandon Thrower on Vimeo.

The video, however, has nothing on the real thing. And something that you definitely can’t see or feel from the video is the 11,500’ of elevation gain for the 50-mile race. Not only that but the 50 is actually 54 miles.

I’m going to just jump right into my race day while it’s still fresh. Friday I drove to nearby Hickory, NC and stayed at a family friend’s house. I didn’t actually fall asleep until 1 am and couldn’t believe I had set my alarm for 3:40 am. I got up and drove 50 mins to the start. It was a very crisp low 50’s morning, beautiful clear skies with amazingly bright shining stars out. The start/finish area takes place at a campground area and they provide free camping for racers and crew.

I arrived to find many tents set up, as people slowly started to emerge from their tents. The race crew set up a bonfire and runners began to swarm. The 50 milers lined up and we got started about 6:10. Everybody set off on a pretty reserved pace and filed into your typical race line with headlamps bobbing every which way. I was at the front 3 with a guy from the Virginia Tech Ultrarunning club and another guy who was a local runner. We ran through about a half mile of a huge open field and then into the woods.

When we got in there I was kind of surprised at how overgrown, rutty and un-runnable the trail seemed to be, After about three minutes people behind us began yelling “do you see any flags?” …you guessed it, we took a wrong turn and had to back track and make our way up through a slow conga line.

I made my way back and settled into a nice easy pace. After a quick section through the woods we came out onto a 3.5 mile section of rolling forest service road that had you were basically running in overgrown tire tracks. One of the first shin deep creek crossings presented itself and we continued onto the first aid station.

Right before the aid, a runner named Paul showed up behind us and introduced himself. I knew from the entrants list that he was predicted to finish 2nd and had a good race history under his belt, having raced this race once before on the old course. He came in second that year with about an 8-hour finish time. At the aid station, he took off into 1st and 2nd was also gone with him.

I began running with the VT runner and we ran 3rd and 4th until about mile 10 when he got away from me. The section we ran together was the first of many long ascents for the day. It was on forest service roads but was entirely uphill at an average of 5.3% grade. This was fine on the way out and I thought it would feel great on the way back… that was a mistake.

We arrived to find pancake balls and bacon were being served at aid #2, pretty interesting but appropriate for a sunrise aid station. Still going uphill, the next few miles were on a ridge and I was greeted with an amazing soft orange sunrise with vistas to the surrounding valleys below. It was at this point that I began to realize just how much of a climb that first section was seeing how high up I finally was.

At about 14 miles in I finally tucked into the woods and began some very technical rocky single track. It was a demanding trail that led you down hill through rhododendron lined tunnels and a couple of creek crossings, one of which required some careful boulder hopping followed by a knee deep crossing as it was impossible to not get across dry. The last 1.5 miles of this section presents to you a very tough uphill climb, not runnable at all. Head down, hands pushing knees all the way to the top.

Hit the top of the ridge at a road crossing and then some more downhill to aid #3. I asked how far ahead 3rd was and they said about 15 mins. After the aid is where I think this race begins to really ask you whether or not you’ve accepted its promised challenge. You tuck back into the woods and descend on single track until you reach the valley floor, then come across a handful of creek crossings ranging from ankle deep to about knee deep — 10’ wide to 30’ or so. Then several brutal technical climbs up out of the creek level and back down repeatedly. Switchbacks up, switchbacks down and then some pretty dangerous Indiana Jones trail stuff. All fours holding onto rocks and roots to make your way down.

It was very steep, very wet from runoff. One wrong move and you’re done. Passed some amazing waterfalls that were just roaring, very beautiful to hear and see, but of course you could only glimpse as you needed to pay so much attention on these trails. Having studied the course map and also having the elevation chart taped to my water bottle, I didn’t think this 5 mile or so section was going to drag on as much as it did.

The reward for finally getting through the creek and climb section was of course the next un-runnable brutal climb as promised on the race website. It was at this point that I began to do some very simple math and my expectation of hitting the halfway point of the race in 4.5 hrs was unattainable. Having not seen any runners coming back my way was all I had to confirm that they too found this to be taking longer than expected.

Made it to aid #4 at about the 24 mile mark feeling strong. Next couple of miles were up and down until the absolute toughest climb on the course. The 2 mile climb to the summit of Table Rock Mountain. I started to hit a typical low of sorts that occur in ultras. Doubting and not imagining that I had it in me to take steps and continue up this mountain. I never had any thoughts of dropping or anything like that, I more just couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I had to summit and then go all the way back, and it was almost 6 hours in! As I made my way up I saw Paul coming down the mountain. I took this as good news thinking that I was maybe another 15-20 mins from the top and if he’s in first then I can’t be too far out from the others. This also told me that this course was indeed tough if this guy had just hit halfway as well.

This gave me a mental boost, I found some pretty deep strength inside and continued my climb. This section is technical and steep, climbing over boulder passages all while not trying to get distracted by the views stretching forever off the side of the mountain. Right before a quarter mile to the summit there was an off shoot to the 5th aid and drop bag area at the parking lot near the top of Table Rock. I saw another VT runner that I had met at Mt. Cheaha 50K crewing for some friends. I asked if they saw their friend (3rd place guy) and they said no he must have gotten lost. So I went up, saw the 2nd place coming down, and tagged the summit where they marked your bib.

The guy marking bibs is also kind enough to snap a quick pic of you at the Table Rock Summit with the Linville Gorge in the distance. At the drop area I caught up with 2nd place and then out of nowhere the lost guy showed up as well. He took off in 2nd and then 3rd got back on the trail and I caught up with him. I ran with him, nice guy, and we chatted down the summit trail and figured he’d be with me for awhile but at the bottom he stopped at another aid that was there and I didn’t. That was the last I saw of him.

Coming down the trail, I had begun to see people coming up so I knew I had some people behind me that were somewhat close. This thought gave me some drive but also haunted me for the remainder of the race. I keep flashing back to my first trail race where I had the lead until a half mile from the finish as I found myself undertrained for the distance. Ended up losing first place by 26 seconds. I held it together but the remaining sections, especially the creek crossing and Indiana Jones stuff were exhausting. Made it to aid #7 and again 2nd was reportedly about 10-12 mins ahead.

I continued on, thinking that I could maybe hold this together till the end, but definitely knew it was too early for thinking anything was in the bag. I had thoughts of someone that was much better at pacing just whizzing by me on one of these uphills where I was walking. I was very determined though to not blow this thing and give up. Again I dug deep. I never had to do this in any 50k! What’s hilarious is I kept having the music from the movie Unbreakable (Fleet Foxes end scene) in my head and tried to run more like Geoff but felt more like Hal at this point.

By the time I made it to aid #8 I still felt strong and had a lot of legs to do hills, but now the next 5 miles were all downhill and that as you can imagine hurt more at this point. The saving grace however was the cheese quesadillas they were serving. This was important because this was the first time I had actually felt hungry all day. Finally hit the last aid with 4.5 miles left and they were the longest ones of the day. Up and down and blind curve after blind curve. From the morning this section seemed shorter. Now it went on forever. At one point about 2 miles from the finish I thought I heard a voice behind me and I was thinking I was going to get passed at mile 52. As I came out into that open field I was pretty emotional. I couldn’t believe I made it and actually was able to finish 3rd in a time of 11:22:04. First place was 10:20:03 and second 11:03:05, certainly telling that this course was the real deal.

This being my longest race to date (distance and now time), 54 miles is a long way, but I enjoyed it immensely. Patience and a positive mind went a long way. Now that the new course is in the books I would definitely put this on your race calendar if you are up for a seriously challenging, varying and beautiful course. The downtown area of Morganton is also a great place to walk around with restaurants, shops and a few breweries to celebrate a finish at Table Rock Ultra.