My first time running the 23K was in 2005, when I finished it in 2:28:21. It was my first experience racing that kind of distance on those kinds of trails, and although I enjoyed it, it seemed like more of a novelty at the time. I was trying to get back into road marathons and felt like running trails were waiting to mess me up somehow. Not that I didn't hike all the time, or regularly run trails over shorter distances. It just wasn't where I was at. Anyway, a few years later, I returned to Pisgah for work and created an interpretive trail guide that partly overlaps with trails used in the race. In 2012 I ran it again, this time clobbering my time with a 2:15:43 finish. I wrote about that in an earlier blog post. Then in 2013 I went back yet again and did the 50K as my first ultra, and wrote about that race extensively here. And lastly, I went back one more time, in 2014, and took photos of racers in both events, and posted a blog entry about that here.
This year I decided to run the 23K again, partly as part of a build-up to the Stone Cat Trail Marathon in early November and partly just for the fun of it. I've been trying to determine whether my Achilles is going to let me continue or not, as it's been very tight lately. It seems like I'm juuust able to get by "managing" it, but I suspect I'll need to take some time off soon. Anyway, I didn't think I was fit enough or fast enough to get a PR this year, but I was feeling decent and hoped that I'd at least come close.
The weather couldn't have been more perfect. Ideal temps, not too humid, and after a week where it only rained once so you knew that it wouldn't be too slick or muddy out there. At the start it was hard to not go out faster. I wanted to, but I also really wanted to make sure I didn't overstress my Achilles. So I settled into a sensible pace out the dirt road to the start of the singletrack. And once I entered the woods and watched some 50K runners peel off to the left, I ran alone for quite a while. Knowing the course and park well, I was never afraid that I was lost or had taken a wrong turn, but it is amazing how there always seems to be a stretch or two where I see a wetland off to the side that I don't remember at all.
I reached the Kilburn water station and passed a handful of runners who slowed to take a longer break there. One of them re-passed me going up the mountain, but otherwise I never saw the others again. The numerous false summits of Mt. Pisgah fooled me yet again, as I thought for sure I was near the final peak when there was still one more to go. Flying down the far side, I was really glad to know the trail well, and even gladder that it wasn't slippery this year. Just before bottoming out I passed Fred Ross who took an awesome photo of me starting to leap over a log that had fallen across the trail.
killer leap photo by the ever-intrepid Fred Ross
The final miles flew by without too much of note, save for one dumb-ass moment. About a quarter mile up from the gate on the final descent, I violently rolled an ankle out and fell down hard. Cursing, I got up slowly and hobbled along for a few steps trying to see if I could move. It hurt quite a bit and I thought for sure I'd sprained it yet again. But amazingly enough, after about 2 minutes the pain subsided and I was able to start running again, slowly at first and then closer to my original pace a few minutes later. I finished in 2:19:45, four minutes slower than 3 years ago, and about nine minutes faster than 2005.
After finishing, I went back out onto the course to take photos of the 50K runners around mile 29-30 of their race. All of those pictures are in a gallery here.