A date with the Rocky Top Trail Half
When it comes to me and running, I prefer the dirt. I prefer roots and twigs and steep declines. I’d take snakes over stop signs any day. Dirty, rocky hills are my milk and honey.
So why, oh why, have I not done a dang trail race yet?!
In November, after asking myself the same thing for the last time, I signed up for my biggest challenge yet: A half marathon trail race in Kingsport, Tennessee. Challenge = accepted. (and OMG, hills.)
So last Friday, I packed up my stick shift with an overnight pack and double-checked I had a fresh tube of Icy Hot. I queued up the tunes (Foo Fighters, AC/DC, and Radiohead) and drove 4.5 hours to the northeast corner of Tennessee and anticipated the upcoming event like a first date.
What will it look like?
How nice will it be?
I hope I don’t trip and fall.
I had butterflies! My first real trail race. I had been a trail hound for the past year, but this time was going to be the real deal. I was crossing my fingers for a hill or five to really test me. Bring. it. on.
I woke up to 38 degrees in the Smokies with the familiar pre-race jitters bouncing around in my stomach and the adrenaline idling in my veins like it knew what was coming. When I drove to Bays Mountain Park where the race was, I originally missed the exit because I was too distracted by distracting myself with singing ‘Banana Pancakes’ by Jack Johnson to ease my nerves. Thanks, Jack.
When I got to the starting area, the line for the single bathroom was pretty long, and was inside the Bays Mountain visitors’ center. There was a dummy dressed up as a moonshine man, holding a Mason jar of what was probably supposed to be moonshine, but looked like Gatorade. Solid, I thought. This will be legit.
The course started on an incline and we were warned: Jockey for a position from the get-go, because it turns into singletrack where you can’t pass anyone for the first two miles.
There were plenty of switchbacks and inclines in the backwoods. Leaves blanketed the trail, making it that much more thrilling because you weren’t guaranteed to not land on a tree root or in a ditch when you came down around a turn. At one point, we ran across a one-lane, rickety wood bridge with the pond water so high up, one false step and you were soaked and cold and probably wouldn’t finish. Fun with a capital F, folks.
And oh my goodness, guys: The hills. I passed full grown men (well, and full grown women). I kicked ass and took names on those hills; they seemed to give me more energy than drain me of it. And I was happy to notice I didn’t completely tire out at the top. I was able to keep a consistent pace, which was probably around a 10-minute mile.
The solitude of running through the woods let me focus on my breath, which I hadn’t ever done in a race before. To focus on deep, cleansing breaths that matched my cadence was soothing and powerful. I would like to credit it to the yoga I’ve been practicing lately, so Namaste to that!
My playlist ended about .5 miles from the finish line, which bummed me out; I had wishfully predicted finishing with ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’ but noooo, the playlist quit before I did. I muttered a couple German commands at myself like a drill sergeant (SCHNELL!), and it worked well enough.
I finished in 2:08:37. I placed 2nd for women ages 20-24, and 3rd for women overall. I got a pint glass for my efforts, and plan on buying my favorite beer, and drinking out of it, like, tonight.
My legs felt oh-so-good, and oh-so-sore. The race was everything I wanted. I was alive. I was uninjured. I was the kind of happy that only comes from running a great race.
So… I’m really, really hoping for a second date soon.