At the Assault on Black Rock IV trail race last Saturday in Sylva, I found myself on the starting line, ready for competition. The 7.1-mile course (give or take) goes up and loops down a 5,900-foot mountain, with a total elevation gain of around 2,770 feet. Add in innumerable roots sticking out (covered in leaves), rocks, single-track paths, stair-climbing sections of dirt and brush, and you have yourself a brutal, yet rewarding experience. Not to mention, it serves as a fundraiser for The Community Table.
Seeing as I’d never run the race prior, I knew nothing about the course. But, I got up early Saturday morning and grabbed my running shoes. Heading out of Waynesville as the first rays of weekend sunshine crept up from the east, I decided to grab a small breakfast at Clyde’s Restaurant.
Stepping up to the starting line, over 100 people joined me — all ready to tackle this legendary, yet vicious event in Jackson County. Of course, the elite trail runners stood in the front, with the rest of us running enthusiasts, novice and weekend warriors in the back. As a competitive high school and college athlete (cross-country/track), I figured I’d go out hard and just see where I landed in the final standings. It’s a habit of mine for years, to push the pace and let the dust settle where it may. I thank the late Steve Prefontaine for that perspective.
The signal rang out and we were off. I held steady for the first half-mile or so, pushing along with the elite up the steep mountain. But I soon realized I wasn’t a college athlete anymore. I also realized maybe that plate of eggs, toast and fruit an hour earlier at Clyde’s wasn’t such a good idea an hour before a 7.1-mile race.
My steady pace slowed down to a fast walk. One-by-one, other runners passed me. It was definitely a mental shakeup to see them whiz by me like I was standing still. Trudging along, I found my pace and kept consistency. And just when I figured I could make a comeback, a teenage girl blew past me. Total ego bubble-burst. I shook my head and chuckled.
None of that matters. I stay as active as possible, and truly love running. An afternoon jog will always clear my head and put a smile on my face. It is my most beloved escape from the modern world, where I return to nature and soak into the essence of humanity.
And as those thoughts drifted into my head, I began to notice how quiet the race was getting. The runners were shaking out, with me somewhere in the middle, with nobody really around me. I felt at peace on the picturesque trail. Soon, another runner came up alongside me. We held the same pace and started talking. He ran a heating and cooling business in Franklin.
“I’ve hiked this trail before and thought I’d be able to do well today,” he laughed. “But, then I remembered that I’m 40 years old and not young anymore.”
“I hear that, brother,” I replied. “And I also chalk it up to a love of craft beer.”
As I pushed along I began to look at the race as a metaphor for life. You start out at the bottom, with no experience or knowledge, and work uphill and compete. Then, like the ridge at mile three, you gain wisdom and the journey is smoother. Then, like the last uphill section, you go through later challenges in your existence and climb over them. Each hill ahead, when I wanted to take a break, I kept moving, telling myself, “Don’t stop, you’re almost there.” It’s that same attitude that has made all the difference in how I conduct myself in everyday life.
I reached the top and let out a victorious howl — a 360-degree view of endless mountains in Southern Appalachia. It was a short-lived moment of satisfaction, as I quickly turned around and bolted down the trail towards the finish line. I bounded down the path cheering others on who were still heading to the top, like the elite runners did when I was still making my way up — it is a camaraderie solely unique to running.
And as I crossed that finish line, more cheers awaited me. We did it, all of us. We shook hands, congratulated each other and traded war stories of our trek. Another joyous Saturday in this paradise we call Western North Carolina.
See y’all out on the trail.
1: Balsam Range and The Boxcars will perform at 7:30 p.m. April 4 at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin.
2: Porch 40 will be performing at 9 p.m. March 29 at No Name Sports Pub in Sylva.
3: The Kiwanis Club Community Spelling "BEE" will be held at 7 p.m. April 4 at the First United Methodist Church in Waynesville.
4: A Benefit for Ben Leslie will be at 6 p.m. March 29 at Frog Level Brewing Company in Waynesville.
5: The Lake Junaluska Peace Conference will take place March 27-30.