South Mountains 50K - Connelly Springs, North Carolina
Elevation Gain: 5978' ... Elevation Range: 1233' - 2623'
January 30, 2021 - The angels must be smiling on me and lining up my stars. Two consecutive fair-weather weekends for running beautiful trails in January. This one was postponed after several inches of snow made it a dangerous endeavor three weeks previous, but I absolutely did not want to miss this adventure, so drove 9 hours from home the night before and back home immediately after to squeeze in a quick trip before another nasty storm moved in behind me.
I had never been to South Mountains before. It is THE weekend playground for folks from Charlotte. Now I appreciate why. The day dawned under a full wolf moon with temps in the mid twenties. I dressed warm, figuring I could dress down if I got uncomfortable. Spandex and an extra layer proved spot on as the day never warmed past about 41 degrees, getting cooler and breezier as the day progressed.
It is a smaller event than last weekend's race, with fewer than 100 contestants. Starting in the last wave, again, I had the advantage of giving chase all day and pulling back people... just not as many of them. RD Brandon Thrower did not go overboard on marking the course with streamers. For the most part it was fairly obvious directionally, but on more than one occasion I questioned whether I was off course. Once I even backtracked a half mile until I ran into another runner... who also wasn't totally sure we were on the right trail! Given my occasional disorientations and hesitant pace I probably gave up 20 to 30 minutes and made a 32.7-mile 50K into more like 34 miles. Brandon's assumptive approach to trail direction would have worked okay had I not second-guessed myself and just continued on.
The course is mostly up and down wide fire trails through an area that suffered a fire some years back. Plenty of laurel and a half dozen stream crossings contrasted with the leafy trails. There was a considerable amount of in-close single track, with lots of roots and enough rocks to keep one's pace honest. I even flushed two deer close by in a thicket along one of the streams.
The race starts straight up hill for a mile, probably gaining a thousand feet quickly. It took me awhile to get my lungs and legs working in synch, so I walked quite a bit to start while the field ran off without me. After a few miles in the warm morning sun, I found my rhythm and rolled along at a comfortable pace. By the halfway point I was moving well within myself and relaxed and ready to reel in the back half.
The fourth section between miles 15 and 21 was arduously long, especially because this is where I added time for being directionally confused. I hit 21.7M in 5H15M, comfortably ahead of the cutoff. The following 4.9 miles to the next Equestrian Aid Station were essentially all down hill on switchbacks and I floated the distance in good stride in less than an hour. With major climbs in the final six miles, I still covered the distance in a bit more than an hour and a half to finish in 7:52. I was not worn out and had measured my energy output appropriately through the day by walking a lot more on the climbs. No falls or stumbles. Like the race of the week before, I ate only 7 gels all day and it seemed to be enough.
The highlight of the course was after the halfway point as the trail climbed up to High Shoals Water Falls, crossing back and forth across the Jacob Fork River. Many wooden steps and bridges made it convenient for the public to make the climb. Being the weekend there were a lot of friendly and supportive people out to enjoy the fair weather in the mountains. I paused to take enough pictures to capture the beauty of the place.
I am satisfied with my effort and time. My physical preparation is progressing very well for this time of year. With one week between events, I had a better outing this time over a tougher course, and I felt good following. The event lived up to Brandon's billing and my own expectations. I rarely do a race for a second time, but I'd make an exception for this one. It was a most enjoyable day, especially for a day in the southern mountains in January.