The beautiful sunrise at the start of the race.
If you are a frequent visitor to this page, you may have picked up on the fact that I’m a planner. This is usually never more true than when I have a race approaching. In the weeks leading up to a big race, I tend to stalk the weather forecasts, memorize the course and elevation, and plan my clothing, food, & hydration down to every last detail. This past week, I threw all of that out the window in the lead up to Boulder Field.
Boulder Field, which had both a 50K and 100K option, was a brand new race put on by Stephan Weiss of Uberendurancesports. I have run many of the Uberendurance events in the past, and they are always fantastic. When I saw that they were creating a new, more challenging race in Hickory Run State Park, I knew I had to try it out.
Of course, while September tends to bring great running weather, the start of the school year is hardly the ideal time for me to prepare for a big race. I was so swamped with work and kids’ activities that I barely gave the race a moment’s thought until Friday afternoon. I made a batch of waffles, packed on my race gear, and set my alarm for a ridiculously early weekend wakeup.
After an unusually good-night’s sleep, I got up, made some breakfast, and hopped in the car to head up to the race. I had miscalculated the time needed to drive up, and that along with a missed turn caused me to arrive just about 40 minutes prior to the race start. Fortunately my attitude for this race was to just go out and enjoy it. I hadn’t even planned a goal finish time. I wished my friend, Nicole, “good luck,” lined up at the start with 3 minutes to spare, and took off with the other 150 runners.
Smiling with Nicole at the start. This all-star went on to finish as the 2nd overall female!
Stephan had warned us that the first 12-mile loop was the more challenging section of the course. The first few minutes gave us a nice easy warm-up before we turned onto some gradually uphill single track. The single track at this race was impressively narrow. I don’t think I’ve ever run through more branches. It allowed me to feel a bit bad-ass, as if I were bushwhacking through a jungle, but it did make the first few miles a bit challenging. With so many runners in single file order, it was hard to get into a good rhythm at the start, as the hills caused a lot of start & stop running. After about two miles, the course opened up slightly, and I was able to settle into a relaxed pace.
I’d never been up to Hickory Run before, and I was impressed by how beautiful the course was. It didn’t hurt that we had lucked out and scored perfect early autumn weather as well. We reached the first aid station about 5 miles in, then looped around for 4.5 miles before returning to that aid station. The loop brought us to the first challenging terrain of the day, as we encountered several decent climbs. There was also a downhill section with some technical footing that required a fair amount of focus. After making it back to the first aid station for the second time, it was just a short 3 miles back to the start and the third aid station. Along the way, we ran along the “Shades of Death” trail, which was much less intimidating than the name implied. While it boasted a lot of tricky footing, it also included several beautiful waterfalls.
The second part of the course was a large 19-mile loop. I started that section in high spirits which quickly began to fade as I found myself struggling to maintain my pace. What had previously been a comfortable run turned into a challenging slog, and I found myself taking frequent walk breaks. Though I know that the half-marathon mark is often a challenging spot for me, I was dispirited to discover how the race had become so difficult so quickly. After about a mile of this, I was passed by another runner, who commented about the never-ending hill. I was running without any kind of tracking device, and the hill that we were on was so sneakily subtle that I hadn’t even realized that it was to blame for the increasing challenge. I was so relieved that I could have kissed the kind soul that clued me in. Even better, just after he passed me, the terrain leveled out and then began to slope back down, allowing me to get back into a good rhythm.
The lovely, but deceptively uphill trail through the woods.
I know that we hit the fourth aid station somewhere around 16 miles, but for the life of me, I have no recollection of the course at that time. I just remember feeling relieved that we were past the halfway point, as that’s always a mental hurdle for me. A few miles past that aid station, we hit another long stretch of technical single track, and after struggling with my footing for a couple hundred feet, I slowed to a fast hike. I felt pretty good at that point, enough that I was annoyed at the slower pace, but I just didn’t fancy the idea of trying to cover the last 10 miles of the course on a twisted ankle. Fortunately just as I was getting truly annoyed at all of the little rocks, the course opened up into a more runnable section of packed pine needles. I coasted along for almost a mile before we reached the infamous boulder field.
While I was initially disappointed to learn that we would only be crossing the boulder field for about 200-yards, by the time we got there, that short distance felt plenty long enough. While some boulders were quite steady, others shifted underfoot, requiring a high level of focus. There was a good-sized crowd hanging out on the far side of the field and it was nice to encounter some spectators after seeing no one but racers for many miles. We also reached the fifth aid station right after the boulder field, which provided another appreciated boost. PB& J was my snack of choice at this race, and I happily scarfed another sandwich quarter and some Coke before continuing on my way.
The infamous boulder field, the race’s namesake.
The course between the fifth and sixth aid station was a very runnable five miles. I was pleased to find that my legs felt strong (at least, as strong at they can 5 hours into a race) and I think I managed a good pace on the gently sloping terrain. There were several other runners nearby, and that also provided a good burst of energy, as I focused on staying close to them. We all came to a brief pause when the trail appeared to stop at a creek crossing, but after navigating our way through a somewhat dubious tunnel, we found some pink tape and were happily back on our way.
I came into the final aid station feeling optimistic that we were nearing the finish, and after a very short stop and one more sandwich quarter, I happily continued on my way. The course continued to be kind, sloping gently downhill for more than a mile, and I tried to maintain a comfortably hard pace throughout. After almost 20 minutes, the course turned back into the woods, where we encountered some gently rolling hills, some narrow footing, and a couple of sharp switchbacks. This section reminded me of parts of the Worlds End course, and I actually found that I appreciated the varied terrain. It was definitely preferable to the unending hill that followed.
With about 2.5 miles to go, the course turned onto a paved road that went up and up and up. Honestly, at that point in the race, after so much runnable terrain, it felt like a sick joke. I believe I said as much to two other runners. I focused on trying to power hike as quickly as I could. After many minutes on the road, the course turned back onto the grass, but the hill continued. I couldn’t see any other runners before or behind me, and when I lost sight of the pink course markers, I felt doubt creeping in. I almost turned around, afraid that I had somehow gone off course so close to the end of the race. Fortunately I pressed forward, and a minute or two later, I found a piece of pink tape that assured me I was on the right track.
Of course, it was a huge relief when the course leveled back out, and then began to slope back downhill. I picked up my run, trying to maintain as hard of a pace as possible for the last few minutes. Of course, without any tracker I had no idea how much farther I had to go, and despite the downhill slope, I found myself feeling impatient to find the finish line. It was such a relief to turn back toward the lake, and to hear the cheers coming from the crowd. I gave it my all the last few hundred yards, running in as quickly as I could to finish in just under 6:45. Not at all bad for a race that I started with no expectations.
As I mentioned at the top, I’m a huge fan of Uberendurance events. This race was every bit as wonderful as their other events. The aid stations were top notch, the swag was high-quality, and the course was fantastic. I would love to have the opportunity to train on those trails on a regular basis, and I’d happily return to this race again in the future.