There are no aid stations, volunteers, trail markings, time clocks, or crew access points. It's just you running with God & nature. Throw in the occasional other runner and you have a very unique run that tends to draw some amazing talent year after year.
I have ran this section of trail once as a sweep during my first time last year at the race, twice on self-supported runs, and again last weekend as a regular runner in the race. My approach to the trail is to survive and come running out the other side. Some of the runners who show up literally have a water bottle and a few crackers. They are out there to run fast and I'm still blown away by them.
The winner broke seven hours at 6:54. I came in near the back of the middle pack at 10:54. The sweep group who are responsible for staying behind all of the runners to make sure they get off the course safely came in around 15:03.
I ran this course as hard as I could go and treated it like I rarely do which is a "race". I'm not surprised that this resulted in a 18:41 mile/min pace, but "it is what it is." Compare that to my only 100 mile race at the Iron Horse in Florida with a pace of 15:10 miles/min. That proves how difficult the terrain and circumstances really are with this race.
I decided to sleep in my own bed the night before and make the hour long drive to the start on Saturday morning. It poured rain nearly the entire drive and I drank about any type of caffeine that I have brought along. The temperature was forecasted to be in the low 80's with high humidity and heavy rain on/off through the day. That is just about a perfect running day for anywhere in South Carolina during August.
I arrived to the starting area around 4:40 AM to find Charles R. sleeping in his SUV. Of course I started flashing my headlamp in his face to wake him up. He wasn't running the race today, but still ended up doing a fun run of over 20 miles. Sorry Charles, but it felt great to wake someone up that early.
I was greeted by so many friends, Psyche, Dave, Scott, Eric, Lynn, the list goes on and on.....
About 8 regular runners and six sweeps began the run at 5:00 AM as the race director allowed a runner to begin the race with a shot from his musket. We began into the mountain darkness as the gun fired. Headlamps were lighting the path as we made the initial climb from the parking area.
Part I - Laurel Valley Is "Really Easy"
The first eight miles of this race are so deceptive. Yes, there are some stairs to climb here and there, but overall the terrain is mostly runnable and there are even some long flat stretches. I began the run with Buddy attempting his 15th Laurel Valley race in front, Eric, Lynn, me, and Andy. We laughed and laughed through this section as the miles ticked by. Lynn and Andy had both suffered concussions from non-running accidents (Slip-n-Slide and falling down stairs) a few months back so they were titled "Team Concussion"....
The sun finally begin to rise through the thick morning fog, but the clouds threatened with rain from the very start. We ran through thick, lush jungle looking trails until we finally reached beautiful Laurel Falls which overlooks Lake Jocassee. We all knew that the going was about to get tough, but some reason I always forget just how tough. I guess that is why I keep coming back for more.
Part II - The Mean 15
From Laurel Falls the Foothills Trail takes you straight up and then straight down to Lake Jocassee. I think this is the trail's way of saying, "I'm bout' to beat you down, Sucka!" This is a 15 mile stretch that is incredibly rugged, beautiful, and well.....just punishing on a runner.
The Beginning of The Mean 15 - Prepping Water with Andy for What is To Come...
Over the 16 years of this race, I would guess that more drama has went down in this section than any other.
I ran much of this section alone and really enjoyed it. I crossed beside Lake Joccassee and begin the never ending climb away from the lake. I mean this climb went up and up forever. I came to several false summits and would think that I had reached the top and was only devastated to find another long & steep 100 yard climb up.
The trail throws this type of terrain at you for the next 12 miles. Just one steep climb after another followed by jaw dropping descents into valleys where the humidity was so thick you could cut it with a knife. It was so green out there that you could almost taste it.
I hit a low mental spot through this section around mile 18. From experience I knew just to keep moving, eating & drinking and it would pass. I felt sorry for myself for about two more miles and then all of the sudden I felt like running. I love this feeling and it is hard to describe. I feel like I can run forever, well at least another mile until the next major climb.....
I kept pressing forward and I noticed that my pack was feeling lighter and lighter. Even when I would stop to refill the 100 oz. bladder, it seemed on the light side. I normally take in about 200 calories/hour, but I had been eating closer to 400. I'm not sure if it was due to me running faster or what, but it was cause for alarm. I didn't want to bonk on this course. Been there, done, that & it just ain't no fun!
I'm nearing the end of the "Mean 15" approaching Horse Pasteur River when I see my buddy Mike Riggins laid up on the side of trail looking white as a ghost. I knew right away that he had gotten too hot and behind on electrolytes so I stopped to try and help. At first he was reluctant for help and told me to go on and then he started talking about getting a ride off the trail. I knew he was talking crazy so I stuck with him for a little while. I loaded his 20 ounce water bottle with enough electrolytes for six people and he started sipping it. Within about 15 minutes he was up and running. I never caught him. Man, that must have been a great drink!
Mike came into this race with a lot on his mind. We could smell the sweet fragrance of rain just before he left and sure enough it began to pour. It was so refreshing and lifted my spirits a LOT!
Part III - Hades 1/2 Marathon 13 Miles
The final thirteen miles are demoralizing. You come to a sign that says 13.3 miles to Upper Whitewater Falls and you think, "Well I can probably run this in about 3 hours." Its a half marathon, right?" WRONG AGAIN!
Just as you go up another killer climb, guess what is waiting? 50+ of these!
This wicked set of stairs is about two three miles past Horse Pasteur River right at the 26.2 marathon distance. They will flat out burn your quads off your legs. I took them slow about about one step every two seconds. BRUTAL!
My friend Wayne D. (Weezy) had started the race as a 6 AM runner and I was thinking that he would have caught me by now. I asked a runner if he had heard from him and I was told that he had hurt his ankle and headed back to the start. This upset me, but I had to stay focused and find a way to finish.
I ran four more major climbs and descents before approaching Whitewater River which is home stretch. The rain had turned into a steady pour and I was feeling great. I reached into my pack for more food, but it was all gone! MAN! I had one bag of Tang drink mixed left so I made a stout 100 ounce drink to push me the final four miles.
It worked well because I was able to maintain a modest pace through the final 1400' foot climb over about 2 miles. I crossed the bridge over Whitewater river and this left only .75 miles to reach the finish line, but it was up, up, and up. Massive amounts of stairs and ladders were in front of me and every step felt like it could be the last ending with a severe cramp.
The final set of steps literally look like they are going to climb you up to the clouds and then all of the sudden you can see civilization on the Whitewater Falls Observation deck. As my head crested the hill I could see my family. What a great sight!
At this point in the run my senses are on overload and it is hard to focus on any one thing for long. Luckily, they know this so they just smile and run with me into the finish for the final 1/4 mile.
I found out later that my buddy Wayne had sprained his ankle and toughed it out to finish anyway. I told you there are some amazing runners that show up to this race....
Thanks again to RD Claude Sinclair for all of the Quad Burning Fun. A shout goes out to Christian for running a killer 7:40 as well. Very impressive!