The same holds for outdoor-endurance events such as Asheville's famed Shut-In Ridge Run, which took place this year on Nov. 1. The annual 18-mile slog -- from The North Carolina Arboretum up to the Mount Pisgah trailhead -- features leg-shredding inclines and a cumulative elevation gain of about 3,000 feet.
I ran the race for the first time two years ago, never having completed an athletic event of that magnitude. After two hours on the trail, my calves stiffened like drying plaster. At the four-hour mark, I was hugging trees for support, fighting my way up the final screaming inclines in 10-yard increments. I eventually crossed the finish line with all the fluidity of Lurch, the Addams Family's corpselike butler.
Of course, none of this entered my mind when the application for the 2008 race arrived a while back. I was out of town during last year's event, so I didn't run. And my memories of 2006 centered on the camaraderie of the start, the eye-catching scenery on the trail and the satisfaction of finishing the race. It couldn't have been that bad, right?
A civilized start
So I decided to sign up for this fall's event. Capped at 200 entrants, the race, now in its 30th year, has a dedicated following among trail runners from around the region and beyond. Each year, the list quickly fills up, but my promptly submitted entry form triggered a letter offering congratulations (and condolences) on being accepted for the 2008 run.
Beginning near the steps of the arboretum's visitor center, the race follows the Shut-In Trail. (Now part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, it was formerly used by George Vanderbilt to get from Biltmore House to his hunting lodge on Mount Pisgah.) Winding beside the Blue Ridge Parkway, the single-track route features stunning views, vibrant fall foliage and "virtually unrunnable climbs in several places," as noted on the event's Web site.
Always held the first Saturday in November, the race can include balmy sunshine, driving rain or blowing snow -- maybe all on the same morning -- as the trail gains elevation.
At this year's start, I saw many familiar faces, all seemingly relaxed despite the daunting task at hand. Contributing to the casual vibe, the Shut-In Ridge Run begins at the civilized hour of 10 a.m., unlike the many outdoor events that line up at dawn. Once again starting at the very back, I reached the aptly named Hard Times Road in 30 minutes, shedding my knit cap, gloves and windbreaker as I warmed up. As in 2006, the weather was sunny and mild, but this time I avoided the mistake of overdressing in the morning chill.
Because of the race's frequent Parkway intersections, Shut-In runners can easily have supporters on hand to grab excess gear, supply snacks and offer encouragement along the way. Organized by the Lower Arden Track Club and sponsored by Jus' Running and Black Dome Mountain Sports, among others, the race features a number of aid stations, eliminating the need to carry loads of liquids.
This fact also escaped me in 2006, when I ran with a three-liter CamelBak full of water and wore extra clothing. Compared with the many elite entrants sporting only tank tops and track shorts, I looked like a through-hiker.
Pump up the Guns N' Roses
Programming a runner's watch is beyond me, so to gauge my pace, I carried a folded index card with 10 time splits. Thinking positively, I had the finish line pegged at four hours -- an ambitious 30 minutes faster than my 2006 time. Early on, however, I was lagging almost 10 minutes behind that pace. But in the second half, past Bent Creek Gap, I managed to speed up.
Improved hydration and lighter clothing kept the leg cramps at bay, and a head-pounding iPod playlist provided suitable psychological fuel. After listening to a dozen tracks from the double-disc Guns N' Roses album Use Your Illusion, I began to feel more bulletproof than Axl Rose. I reached the intersection of Highway 151 in about 3 hours, 40 minutes, leaving me a mere 20 minutes to cover the final two miles and beat make my target time. Ten-minute miles are doable for me -- but not on the brutal inclines at the Shut-In's finale. My minimalist training caught up with me, and I slowed to a final time of 4 hours, 12 minutes.
Still, I managed to complete the final stretch without stopping, which would have been impossible for me in 2006. That had me smiling at the finish line, despite my winding up in 150th place, about two hours behind the winner.
Reading newspaper articles about distance events over the years, I always wondered about runners who remarked, "I just want to have a good race." Surely, I thought, they were sandbagging.
But having now participated in a couple of long runs, I understand: Your body handles the hours of pounding better in some races than in others. And I'm already looking forward to February's Black Mountain Marathon. As a back-of-the-pack runner, time really isn't important: I just want to have a good race.
To view the race results, go to www.shutinridgerun.com or www.lowerardentrackclub.com.
[Michael Flynn lives in Asheville; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]