This was a humbling race, and by that I mean the course made sure to keep you honest and punish you if you neglect climbing hills (see my course map video to get an idea of the terrain). However, it did provide you with great scenic views so the trade-off was okay.
Outside of the four-mile backup on I-85 the drive up to this race is spectacular. The views you get of the mountains are phenomenal. It’s always neat to see the peaks layered in foreground, mid ground and background. Tons of little shops line the roadways in the small towns you pass through. Tallulah Gorge and Falls is remarkably unimpressive. The surrounding hills look like shit because the trees are deforested.
My first stop was in Waynesville to stay at my new buddy Andre’s house to drop off all my stuff. We then went to packet pick-up. He took me through parts of the course including the climb at mile 42 of the bike course. We got there at 5:30 p.m. and it was kind of sparse. The race t-shirt was an additional $10 if you wanted it, but you got a hoodie with your stuff so I think I made out with the better deal (for $184 including fees what more could you ask for in a last minute half?). The race numbers for the bike ride weren’t like the Ironman stickers, so we trimmed ours down and put them on the frame with electric tape (provided by General Motors of course). We ate a big spaghetti dinner Elizabeth cooked just as Chris arrived and about an hour later we crashed for the night. The couch was comfy as fuck and I slept pretty well.
On race morning I ate my typical loaf of banana bread Danielle bakes. I love it so much, it leaves me feeling full but not like I’m going to explode. It’s a lot better than when I used to eat leftover pizza and chicken wings before a race.
Thank god we followed Andre to transition in the morning because even with the GPS I would have got lost. We got there somewhere about 6:00 a.m. so there was plenty of time to set up my shit. By the time I was done I could already see my helmet visor getting dew on it.
The swim start is across the road off of a dock. It’s an in-water wave start and I was the second wave. The water of the mountain river fed lake is cold, about 68 degrees (it’s wetsuit legal). However, the mountain river itself is at least 10 degrees cooler. It’s also a very shallow lake, there will be times where you get tangled up in seaweed closer to the bridge. Right when you cross under the bridge you feel the temperature drop and it takes your breath away (free ice bath for you when it’s over!). The West Fork Pigeon River is shallow, my hands would touch the bottom when I was in my pull. You aren’t in the river for long, maybe 50 yards or so, then you exit at a dock (two dudes were helping people out of the water). The swim was a little long and I was out in 31 minutes, which was about three minutes faster than I was predicting).
Transition is a little bit of a run from the dock so I knew it’d be a little longer than usual. I was glad I made the decision to alter my wetsuit. I always had a hard time stripping out of it because the legs and sleeves went all the way to my ankles and wrists. Sure it kind of looked like capris now, but I got out of it super easy. When I went to put on my helmet I saw the visor had completely fogged over. I just took my hand, wiped it off and hoped I wouldn’t be staring at my smear marks for 56 miles. I was out of T1 in about four minutes.
Like I said, the course is humbling, in particular the bike. You start off with a climb out of Transition followed by a long descent. The first half of the bike course is pretty fast, but expect at least one mph drop off on the back half. Andre caught up to me at about mile seven and took off like a rocket. The next notable climb was at about mile 10 where you hang a right turn and make a loop before coming back out to the road you were on. A few miles down the road is where you encounter your first mountain town. In each town there were a bunch of turns, but it really wasn’t too bad. At mile 23 I stopped to take a pee. On an every day basis I’m usually over hydrated and go a lot throughout the day and the bike ride was no different. I wasn’t even to mile 30 before I had to go again and at that point I stopped drinking my Gatorade. I got my chance to pee again at mile 36 at the second aid station. Mile 42 is where the party really begins. I specifically changed my cassette from 11-25t to 11-30t just for this climb. Andre drove me over it the day before, but driving over it does not make it seem nearly as hard as it’d turn out to be. I knew I could climb it fairly well as my bike commute in Atlanta gave me a good dose of hills on a regular basis. I managed to pass four people on the climb, but it fucking fried my hamstrings. After that you have another long, fast descent. Andre said in the car, “If you’ve got the balls you don’t need your brakes. You’ll easily hit 50!” I easily have the balls to do it, however I didn’t have the health insurance. The course flattened out until the final climb before Transition. I loosened the strap at my shoes at the top but didn’t take my feet out until I got over the last little bump Andre told me about. I was off the bike in 2:49 (two minutes slower than my prediction). The bike course had some really great views. I consider the area hillbilly country rather than redneck land. The hillbillies are a lot more tidy, their yards weren’t trashed or selling 90s used cars out front of their trailer like rednecks. Hell I didn’t even see one confederate flag! Also, the cops did excellent traffic control at every intersection.
There is a little bit of a long jog from the dismount line to transition. For the most part you run on grass and there’s a carpet covering the gravel drive. Overall I was pretty speedy and was out in two minutes.
The run is a little tough. It’s two loops; on the way out you’re climbing at a consistent 2-3% grade, on your way back down it’s obviously downhill, so expect to be faster. I haven’t been able to run straight through for a few years now, so I decided to walk 30 seconds of each mile. Chris rolled up on me at mile 1.5. I sped up my pace and talked with him for about a mile (he’d end up winning with a 4:15). I was pretty strong on the uphill of the first loop. At the top of it you could hear the hillbillies target shooting). Coming back down I saw Andre on his second. At that moment I watched him stop and wince on the side. I could tell he was in the hurt locker and even though I was roughly 2.5 miles back I might have a chance to catch him. The turnaround for the first loop is deflating — you actually have to turn toward the finisher shoot then hook a left. By the way, the aid stations on the run are oddly spaced. There’s one at mile 1.5, then at mile two (this mile 4 & 4.5) and the at the first loop turnaround. I was running at 8:23 pace at mile eight. I started to walk about 45 seconds of each mile now. I saw Andre at about mile 8.5. I could tell he was hurting, and so was I, but I still thought I might be able to close the distance (he also had a two minute head start being a wave in front of me). My back was shot so during my walk periods I tried stretching out. Because I was walking more it meant my pace was going to continue to slow, but the good news was I headed downhill now. At the mile 10 I was at 8:55 pace but gaining speed. The beginning of mile 11 would be the last time I walked. I hauled ass downhill. I was headed toward the turnaround and the lady guiding me “Second Loop take a left!” I said, “Fuck yes!” I didn’t have to run all the way down to the turnaround again! All that was left was left hook and into the finishing chute. I finished in 5:19:47 (I predicted a 5:21 so I was pretty spot on). I ran my fastest half marathon in a HIM this year at 1:52 (I really dug deep trying to catch Andre who finished 5:18:00. I did close the gap a lot though, he ran 2:08). The run was nicely shaded and it had a serene view of the river with its rocky creek bed.
There was no one for me to give a hug at the end of the race because Danielle couldn’t come. I even looked around for a big ole fat guy but there was none. Might have been weird anyway.
Afterwards I went to the river and got my ice bath on (a good ice bath is about 55 degrees, which coincidentally the river temp and up to my waist!). I hung around a bit after to socialize. I stopped at the first aid tent for a bag of ice for the road.
As much as I like SaltStick as a product I’m never going to use it again because of their new packaging. If you don’t precut the top as high as possible with a pair of scissors prior to the race you’re boned because ripping it of tears it too low to open. And if if you pre-cut the top it’s still extremely difficult to get the package open while running. It’s not worth fucking around with any more. I’d rather just go back to Base Salt (this always makes me feel like I’m doing shots of tequila).
Don’t expect to have cell reception anywhere near transition. I didn’t bother calling Danielle until I was well into Georgia and I still dropped her call.