Monday, May 10, 2010

Race report: Cades Cove Loop Lope

One day I will post race reports in a timely manner. This is not that day. I ran a race on April 25 ... and now I'm writing the report.

There is some backstory to this particular adventure. A few weeks after my marathon and a few weeks before this race — it being about a month after the marathon — my coach informed me we were running a 10 miler in the Smoky Mountains.

Please note the use of "race," "10 miler" and "mountains." Ughhhhh.

However, there was no way I could pass up this opportunity. The hugely popular Cades Cove scenic loop had closed down for part of the off-season for much-needed repaving. Tourists throng Cades Cove for chances to see deer, turkeys and the occasional bear. A race with bears!?!?! Of course I'm in.

The race — the Cades Cove Loop Lope — was being billed as a once-in-a-lifetime affair. It had never been done before and they don't plan to do it again, it only became possible because the repaving was done a month before the loop was set to reopen. The race's slogan was "It's now or never."

Derby City Athletic Club, the team for whom I run (in addition, of course, to nominally running for New Balance), holds its youth camp each summer in the Smokies and regularly runs the Cades Cove loop. On a spring break trip down there, he found out about the race.

Now, as if the set-up for this race wasn't sounding quite strange enough, registration was a whole 'nother matter. It was a one-day online-only affair, and because of parking limitations, registration was done by "teams."

Parking could only accommodate 140 vehicles, so each "team" would receive one parking pass. You could have as many as eight people on your team, but you were only coming in one vehicle. Even with the fairly steep price of $60 per person (for either the 10 mile or 5k option), registration closed within hours.

Coach had mentioned to me that we were doing this race, but I didn't pay a whole lot of attention ... until registration confirmation appeared in my inbox. Turned out I was being offered race entry, overnight accommodations and carpooling ... all I had to do was pay for my meals and attempt to run fast. Plus it was a Sunday race, so I didn't have to take off work.

Even with my semi-functional post-marathon legs, there was no way I was saying no. Derby City had signed up five people, so it ended up being my coach (Dave), my friend (Mat) and two eighth-grade Derby City standouts (Max and Chris). The younger boys would run the 5k — farther than what they typically race, and the second-ever 5k for both — while us older folks would tackle the 10 miler.

We headed down when Mat and I were finished at Ken Combs Running Store, piled into Dave's SUV and headed out. There was a stop for Fazolli's along the way, making me now a convert to the Fazolli's-before-racing gang. It must be the crack in the breadsticks.

I will admit being in a car with four guys, including two teenage ones, wasn't nearly as bad as I might have feared. The younger ones were absolutely hysterical, sometimes unknowingly but usually just because they're funny.

Our cabin was about 20 minutes from the race, and one of the ones Derby City uses for camp. Dave took the upstairs bedroom, Mat and I took the downstairs one and the boys got the couches. Of course, one boy stayed up till 2 a.m. texting and fell asleep on the pool table ... but boys will be boys.

We rolled out of the cabin at 7 a.m., all awesomely attired in navy shorts and orange Derby City singlets. Fake it till you make it, right?

Parking was really well orchestrated; the park rangers wanted us in the right places so they were making sure we got there. Ample bathrooms, fairly easy check-in ... The only headache while checking in was that the other runners were flat out not listening to the directions. Goodies came in a small reusable shopping bag, pretty much lunchbox sized, with the super-cool race logo printed on it. Shirts were of course oversized, but a cool shade of green with the logo in brown. Perfect for a scenic national park race.

While warming up we were talking about racing, and somehow it came up I had never won a race before. A few second-place finishes for sure, plenty of top-tens and age group prizes ... But no overall top female. The guys all had their share of wins from one time or another, probably aided by running through middle and high school, or having run for the past 25 years or so.

And believe me, a ridiculously hilly 10 miler a month post-marathon was not being considered for a win. I hadn't run more than 40 miles a week since the marathon, mostly easy mile — and I had done two hill workouts the week leading up to Cades Cove.

Coach told me going into the race that whatever I thought I could run a flat 10 miler in, add 20 seconds a mile to my pace. That's how tough the course is. I figured 75 was a good goal for the day, which would pretty much let me run my normal pace on a harder course.

Our little team did some pre-race striders, and I hope we looked intimidating because I sure felt like a stud. Now I just had to run decently and not embarrass myself.

I had been strongly advised to go out slow; the first half of the race is considerably easier than the second. So the three of us hit the first mile in 7:05, which was definitely not the plan. But it was downhill, so who can blame us. Then we get our first hill, which doesn't seem too bad. Then things get silly. From miles 2-4 there are about seven hills. Yes, seven. About four of them are 200-foot climbs, the others less than 100. But with that many of them, even the little ones are doozies since you're not getting much recovery.

Dave had backed off after our overzealous first mile; Mat stops to stretch at mile 2. I slow down a tad, since I needed to anyway, and hope Mat will catch back up. He surfaces around mile 4, and promptly drops me at mile 6. Note bene that he had adamantly stated he couldn't even run 10 miles right now, and certainly not fast. It must be nice to be young and naturally talented.

There were no girls in front of me at the start, not many in the field who looked like speedsters, and none had passed me yet. When Mat is back with me at mile 4, he reports there is a girl not too far back — not on my tail yet, but close enough for having a 10k left. By the time Mat pulls away from me, she's not in sight anymore.

There's a bit of a drop from miles 4-6, a couple of steep hills but with some downhill to counter it. But from miles 6-10, the total elevation gain is well over 400 feet. Up a bunch, down a little, repeat.

I believe I uttered the phrase, "I hate you, Dave," multiple times.

Then .... the boys show up. Having dominated the 5k, taking second and third with times right at 18:20 (probably worth at least 17:45 on a flat course), they ran backwards from the finish line to find the rest of us.

Mat is cruising at that point, tells the boys to come keep me company. They catch me at mile 8, where I have climbed my butt off over a nasty hill section. But they are running easy and talking to me, which makes my effort seem easier. I'm still in the lead, and remembering that I just told these boys I had never won. I was determined not to give up the victory at that point, although I had no idea where the next female would be.

At a late water stop, Max calls to the volunteers that they're cheering for the winning female. I roll my eyes and tell them to cut it out, to not embarrass me. The boys push me to a 6:50 last mile (fastest of the race), dropping off before the finish mat.

I clock 1:14:34, just under my goal time, picking up my first female overall win — and setting a course record that may never be broken. Haha! The next two girls were three and four minutes behind me, respectively. I was 17th overall.

Mat finishes in 1:11, 12th overall and second in his AG. Dave was 24th overall in 1:18, fifth in his AG — but would have been second one age group younger and first one age group older, so he pretty much got screwed.

Awards are awesome; I get a locally designed and produced stoneware bear statue. And a 50-minute massage and running store gift card, both which I hope to use while at Derby City's camp this summer.

There's a bluegrass band playing while they figure out awards; we get soft-serve ice cream from the souvenir shop. The ice cream reminds me I really have to bring warmups to races regardless of the weather, because soon after I'm freezing. But I'm proud to score my first win while wearing my DCAC jersey, so I don't really want to cover it up, either.

We head into Gatlinburg for pancakes before heading home, stopping to buy Talledaga Nights along the way.

All-in-all a great trip — in a way it is sad they won't have the race next year ... but I want to have the course record as long as I can!

1 comment:

Ed H. said...

Congratulations on your win. Great story and well told. I'd love to run Cades Cove someday, race or no race, so that plus the cool bear statue means I'm super jealous right now.

Time to plan the family vacation to the Smokies.