The Vertical Mile Challenge is a race that I’ve been aware of since 2017 but I’ve not had a chance to go up to run until this year. 2017, I was recovering from my wreck and subsequent neck surgery. 2018, I had a scheduling conflict, But this year I was free to register.
Earlier this year, I did what any good friend would do, I sent the Ultrasignup link to my running group to see who wants to join me. Immediately, Cap Gun (John) committed and signed up, shortly followed by Serena (Raymond) but no other takers. Oh, and Cap Gun and Serena are their F3 Names. As for me, I’m Crab Daddy. We continued to try to strongarm some of the other guys to register but no one wanted to join in on the fun.
Around mid-May, I sent this video from YouTube to the guys in the GroupMe that I created to chat about the race, needless to say, we were all in “what have we gotten ourselves into” mode after watching it.
So my race week was not your typical race week. Monday I had to be at the airport at 5 am to fly to NYC to work at two of our customer sites through Thursday. I was supposed to fly home Thursday evening at 9 and land just before midnight. Thankfully, our work finished earlier than expected and I was able to get an earlier flight home. One downside to the week, I woke up Tuesday with a VERY itchy throat. Great. Just what I needed…
Also on race week, the hill climbing BEAST, Tapeworm (Andy) decided he was going to sign up and join us. Did I mention that Andy is 73 years old and already has almost 70,000′ of elevation gain so far for the year? Around 2:30 Friday, I round up Serena and Tapeworm and we head to Taylorsville, NC to the AirBnB that Cap Gun reserved.
The 5 of us (Cap Gun’s co-worker Tom joined us as well) were up and out of the rental by 6, which was a smart choice, the house was 9 minutes from the race site and we had the pick of where to set up out pop-up tent.
We get everything set up, gear checked, chat with those that I haven’t seen in a while, chat the the group of Harbison Trail Runners from Columbia, who always show up in masses to these events. Hit the portajohns, and have just enough time to take the obligatory pre-race selfie:
Race announcements, prayer, National Anthem, and then we’re are off.
At the start, it’s a huge conga line for the first quarter of a mile or so. With 200+ runners, that’s to be expected. The race starts on a paved path that leads to a single track trail. The trail was rooty and rocky with a bunch of hi-viz orange spray paint marking the roots, not all of them but damn near all of them. I knew just by these markings, that care was taken to ensure runners had a great time. At .51 miles, you hit a short, quick rolling descent/climb and make a slight left, and then you see it…Stairway to Heaven as the locals call it. At the base of the rock is when you truly realize the enormity of what you’ve gotten yourself into. The thought that crossed my mind was “You’ve got to be F@#$ING kidding me, I’ve got to do this S#!t 8 times? Who signed me up for this nonsense?”
The climb is a sheer rock face that starts at 751′ above sea level and climbs up to 1282′, easily a 20%+ plus grade, with a section that felt more like 30% or more. I was given a tip by one of the Harbison Trail Runner race veterans to “zig-zag” my way up the rock face to save my hammies. I zigged, I zagged, I zigged and zagged over and over. I stopped to rest a few times. Approximately 3/4 of the way up the rock face is a water stations. I thought to myself “bless those volunteers that had to hike it in to get the pop-up tent, coolers, ice, and water there.” Then there was that one volunteer, coyly yelling at the runners “don’t stop on my mountain!” Needless to say others responded with a few choice words of their own. I just laughed and looked at him while I stood still.
At the aid station, volunteers joyfully tell you that “the climbing is over!” and you’re thankful. Clearly, you see that you have to climb just a little more to get back to the trail, but after what you endured, that’s nothing. When you get to the wood line, you then realize that those wonderful aid station volunteers lied to you. There’s more damn climbing! I later learned that the locals call that section of the woods the wicked forest. Already feeling a little defeated, I made my way through the forest to come to yet another sheer rock face with, you guessed it, more climbing. Thankfully, this climbing was not near as much. After the rock face, you’re back into the woods, and clearly making your way down (Thank God!). After several switchbacks and some straightaways, you come to another sheer rock face, that is the top of the first picture above. I got motivated because I could hear the music from the start/finish line. I bound down the rock face, then the little trail, and the granite steps (which I almost fell down on this lap) to get to the start finish line. First lap was a respectable 34:22. I grab a banana and a sliced pickle and trot to our tent, switch out water bottles, grab some snacks and I’m off for lap two.
Laps Two and Three
Laps two and three were pretty uneventful. At the end of lap two, I did get asked to help carry an injured runner down the small steep rock face near the end of the lap. The runner was in a trail recover wheelchair with several individuals already helping but an extra set of hands could never hurt to ensure the runner and volunteers were safe. Lap two is where I started to ensure I went to the bathroom on each lap. I would stop at the water drop aid stations about a tenth of a mile before the rock climb to use the facilities. I was staying just ahead of dehydration the entire day. During the lap 3 break, I was slight over the dehydrated mark and grabbed extra water at this station to help, which thankfully it did, Lap 2 time was 36:50. Lap 3 was 40:53.
Lap four is where things started to change for me. My heart rate kept spiking, causing me to get winded feeling. At the top of the rock face, I was planning to quit. Thankfully, one of the other runners who was running about the same pace as I was for the first 3.5 laps was there and I verbalized that I was thinking about DNF’ing because of these reasons. We both decided that DNF’ing was not what I came here for. Thankfully, her motivation was just enough to take the DNF off of the table and reinvigorated me to keep going. After this, I decided I was not there for time, I was there to finish this race. I would use the immediate descent to walk down about .2 of a mile. This allowed me to recover from the climbing and to allow my legs to get back under me. Lap 4 time: 49:33
Laps 5 – 7
With my renewed outlook and a more positive mindset, I was tackling the race one lap at a time. Not worrying about the number of laps I had left, just the lap I’m on! This is also where I made the decision to conserve energy and essentually walk from our tent after the start/finish line to the rock face. I would mix in a little running on the little downhill sections but mostly walked. This seemed to work to my benefit on these laps on the climbing. I was taking fewer stop breaks and was moving slightly faster on my zig zags. I count that as a win! I was able to start running earlier on the descent portion and felt better coming in at the end of each lap. As you can see, my times didn’t suffer that much going with this plan. Lap 5 time: 50:10, Lap 6 time: 52:40, Lap 7 time: 52:39
I come in from lap 7 feeling good but also hurting and slightly cramping up. When I rolled in, I see that Cap Gun and Tom had left already and Tapeworm was standing up looking fresher than ever. That’s when Serena told me that TW was going to go out on my last lap with me. Jokingly, I said “I guess you need to get the extra elevation gain to ensure you beat all of us in vert for the week.” He just smiled and said “Let’s go!” I told he he didn’t have to go but honestly, I was very thankful he was going with me to help keep me moving forward. When I would slow down, he encouraged me to speed up. When we got to the rock face, he allowed me to go at my pace but also wouldn’t allow me to take a break for too long. I’m feeling like near death and then look over at Tapeworm smiling like a kid in a candy store…just enough to motivate me to keep going.
We get to the rock face aid station, my first words to the remaining volunteer were ” You’re a handsome guy but I’m glad I don’t have to see you again!” After the three of use laughing, he offered to take a few pictures of Tapeworm and I and told us others were doing 16 push ups there to celebrate. I decline since my rotator cuff doesn’t like them and I wasn’t about to make another part of my body angry at me.
When we get to the top of the last rock face after the wicked forest, I said something similar to the volunteers that were there all day. Still hurting and relegated to just walking, I started the descent knowing I was about 20-25 minutes from being done! At the turn of the first switchback, I noticed the young lady from earlier gaining on me. Honestly, I have no qualms with being “chick’d,” but something clicked in my head, without thinking, I started running. Was I trying to keep her behind me? Was I just ready to be done? Was I delirious and out of my mind? I’m not sure which it was but I kept going. When I got to the rock face where I could hear the music, I started smiling big as I knew I was just a few moments away from finishing. I cross the line with a Lap 8 time of: 58:10 and an overall time of: 6:15:17. To put this in perspective, This finishing time is consistent with where I would finish a 50K…twice the distance of this race!
Having never ran this before and having struggled to regain my hill climbing endurance, I’m happy with my finish time. Honestly, I was saying that this would be a one and done event but now that I’ve slept, I’m definitely going to be back. I was so happy to take the walk to the park office to receive my finisher’s award, a “runner only” race shirt. That shirt was well earned!
As a race director, I tend to look at a race I’m running in with a slightly different eye than a normal participant. It’s a blessing and a curse. I will say this much: Race Director, Rick French, the staff of Alexander County EDC, Alexander County Fire Rescue, and the amazing volunteers put on one helluva event. The aid stations were well manned and supplied, The course was well marked, I’m willing to bet there were over 1000 roots/rocks spray painted to ensure the runners didn’t catch them and potentially hurt themselves. Rocky Face Mountain Recreation Area is a beautiful setting and clearly is a visible sign of a county/community that embraced the building of said multi-use park. Many cities/counties can learn from this venture on how to properly build a setting that the community can and will embrace!
The 2020 VMC date isn’t set that I know of, if it follows this year, expect to see it around the same dates as this year. Regardless, at $25, this race is a WHOLE lot of value for your money and totally worth registering for! This morning on the way to church, Jenny and I were talking about the race next year and how I’m looking forward to it and that there was a playground for Emma and that they should come up next year. Instead of saying they would come up to support me, Jenny said “Maybe I’ll run it!” I said ok but your time to beat is 6:15:17. She responded with the lines “Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you…” I said “oh yeah? it’s on!” So in 2020, unless someone comes with us to watch Emma while we both tackle the race, Jenny will be there participating and I will be her crew chief.
For the F3 Columbia and F3 Lexington Pax…consider this your call out. You guys love a good #CSAUP (Completely Stupid and Utterly Pointless for the non-F3ers out there), this is the most ridiculous CSAUP of CSAUPs. I expect to see a bunch of you guys there next year earning that shirt by suffering through it. YOU WERE MADE for this insanity! Columbia: Shocker, Jar Jar, Holy Poker, Co-Pay, Beta, All the pax that are regulars at The Bull, Boo, Biggie, Drive By, and everyone else that’s
dumb brave enough to register. Lexington: No Help, Rocking Chair, Pajanimal, H4T, Katniss, Shake n Bake, Tardy, Ken Doll, Tuff Guy, and the many more that will have FOMO. Consider this your FOMO EH for next year, don’t worry, I’ll keep pestering you guys to register, you can count on it!