Last Saturday was the 2nd year for the Pilot Mountain Payback. A friend Abran Moore is the race director and does a great job with the race. I met Abran to help mark some of the course on Wednesday evening. It was cool to hear how he started running just a few years ago and has already put together a new race. The course runs over most of the trails in Pilot Mountain State Park. The start is down next to the Yadkin River. After a short loop in that section the course follows the Corridor Trail which is narrow strip of the Park cutting through the countryside over to the main section of the Park at Pilot Mountain. This trail is a wide groomed trail that is also a horse trail. At around 8 miles the course heads onto the Mountain Trail, the only "real" trail portion left at Pilot Mountain. It is 2.5 miles of most steep climbing on rocky trail with some tight laurel thicket sections. The rest of the trails are groomed, crushed gravel. There are several steps going up to the summit and around the knob, then rock steps back down to Grindstone Trail. Grindstone drops steeply in sections back to the park office where the course takes the Grassy Ridge Trail back to the Corridor Trail and back to the finish. The Corridor and Grassy Ridge Trail are constantly rolling up and down hills. My GPS watch had the race gaining 4457' in elevation and the distance as 23.5. The distance is probably close to 24 miles. Here's a link to my GPS data for anyone interested: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/69276833
So on to the actual race. I am running Nueces 50 Mile on March 5 and was hoping to do PMPB as hard long run. The race is just ~15 miles from my house, but I was surprised at how many people knew who I was. It was nice to have several people cheering me by name during the race. My area is far from a running mecca. Warming up I saw Josh Wheeler, but he was there for the half-marathon. At the start, I got out just enough to check bibs for who might be marathoners. Just one tall, really lean guy was a marathoner. After a big climb and descent to 3/4 mile, several half runners and the lean guy started to pull away. I was just thinking to stay steady and relaxed over to the mountain section. The Mountain Trail is through open woods and as I neared the top I was surprised that first place was still not in sight. I would normally expect to close the gap on a big climb. I had forgotten to look at last years splits before the race, but thought I was running well, thought I was climbing well. At the summit, I heard that I was between 2 and 3 minutes back of first place. I began to reanalyze my race plans. With Nueces in two weeks, how hard did I want to work. To be honest, I felt a little pressure to win being the local and hearing folk's encouragements. I had already planned to go down the mountain fast and free, something I've really worked on in the past year. I continued to question how hard to go over the next twenty minutes, but planned to push a little on two miles of Grassy Ridge, then go harder from 7 miles out.
Nearing the bottom of the mountain someone said I was only 30 seconds back. I assumed they were wrong, but about a mile from the park office the lean guy was coming back to the course after missing a turn. I was relieved. I figured that I should be able to go by and cruise home. I planned to stay steady and I'd break away shortly. As I began to set the pace, he laced on. It appeared that I was climbing easier and descending the steep hills better, but I could tell he had more true leg speed on the flats. The two miles of Grassy Ridge clicked by and the lean guy was stuck to me like glue. I could tell he was working hard, but I could tell he was a racer. He was not going to break easily. As the Corridor trail went by, I surveyed my race strategy once more. I felt like we were standing toe to toe trading punches. I thought I was throwing more punches than him and hitting a little harder. But I questioned if I could keep throwing punches and could he take all my punches, throwing a final knock out. I pondered picking up the pace slightly at 4 miles or hard 2 miles out. Then at about 4 1/4 miles out we hit a long hill. About a 1/4 of the way up I felt him drift 10 yards back. My thoughts were to stay steady and keep climbing. I could feel him falling back more, listening for the sound of footfalls and breathing. No checking the shoulder. I think it is crushing to watch someone pull away and never give even a glance back. A mile latter on some switchbacks, I could see easily back up the trail and he was nowhere in sight. Now what would my new course record be. I finished in 3:05:56 compared to 3:15:15 last year. Compared to last year, I was 2:28 faster over the first 8 miles, 3:32 faster over the middle 9 miles, and 3:19 faster over the final 7 miles. When second place finished in 3:10:16, I noticed he was wearing a 100K World Cup shirt from 2005. He had run for the US Team. He was Mark Werner. I checked him out when I got home and he had a nice running resume. No wonder that he was so hard to break.
It turn out to be probably a perfect prep race for Nueces. The racing was good for the head and I didn't end up sore any. I ran very even which I hope to do at Nueces. I want to be much more of my typical strong finisher than I was at Bandera. I'd rather be hunting at the end of a race than begging for the finish line. It was great hanging out after the race, meeting some new folks and catching up with some others. The race was well done and I'd recommend checking it out if you get a chance. I was trying out the new La Sportiva Crosslite 2.0. They worked really well and I plan to do Nueces in them. Compared to the Crosslite, they are lighter and probably more flexible, but a little more supportive in the heel/arch area. They are also lower profile than regular Crosslites. So I haven't decided whether to do a trail 10K this weekend or not. What do you think?