Sunset Stampede strategies

My introduction to Sunset Mountain was warm and friendly. A few of my running partners and I were preparing for the Grandfather Mountain Marathon in 1992. We began a 20-mile training run with a gentle climb up Macon Avenue and then ascended the Old Toll Road to Town Mountain; the point-to-point rendezvous ended with a rewarding downhill scramble along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Unfortunately, my initial experience with Sunset was probably our friendliest encounter. Ten years and 20,000 running miles later, I’ve come to grips with some of Sunset’s less agreeable dimensions — and, in the process, I’ve developed a mountain-load of respect for that undulating route.

So for those brave folks who’ve taken the plunge and signed up for the inaugural Sunset Stampede, I’ve assembled a few tips — both my own and those of other local competitors who know the mountain well — that might help you in your own quest to stomp up Sunset, whether you’re stampeding, running, walking or crawling.

Tip #1: California dreamin’

Long, gradual climbs can wear on even the most experienced competitor. Sections of the Stampede course contain prolonged ascents that seem like they’ll never end. As a result, some runners may push too hard too soon and end up feeling frustrated when they misjudge the crest.

Solution: Start at a slower-than-normal pace. Take in the sights along the way, enjoy the shady forest coves, and admire the high-end neighborhood’s eclectic architecture.

I’ve run this stretch maybe 50 times. And nearly every time I do the route, the scenery triggers memories of a similar experience I had years ago, cruising the coastal hills behind the UC-Berkeley campus.

This happy distraction lets me momentarily forget about the arduous climb up Sunset.

Tip #2: Asheville, a hill of a place

Manager Jane Roane of Just Running describes the event as “vintage Asheville.” “If you’re going to run in the area, there’s no way around the hills,” she observes, adding, “Most [local] people going into the Stampede are familiar with the demanding climbs.” Sloane recommends anticipating the long, “quad-pounding” downhill grades off Sunset and trying to run them “relaxed.” When I interviewed Roane, she made it sound as though she’d be assisting behind the scenes at this year’s Stampede. But my bet is, she’ll be toeing the starting line instead.

Tip #3: Tri guy’s tiptoe to the tiptop

Galen Holland, a nationally ranked triathlete who lives in Asheville, frequently trains along the hills of Sunset. At press time, Holland hadn’t registered for the Stampede but admitted he was leaning toward using the race as a training run for the Half-Ironman Triathlon the following week. “It’s all about small steps,” says Holland, laughing. He suggests shortening your stride while climbing Sunset. “This is more efficient and requires less effort,” he contends. Holland also shares a pointer he learned while competing in cross country at Warren Wilson College: “When cresting a hill, always continue through the hill and maintain the same effort beyond the top of the hill.”

Tip #4: Sunset is a master of disguise

When climbing Macon Avenue, beware the cruel trickery of Sunset. The devilish blend of adrenaline, overexertion and accelerated heart rate can make the Sunset Mountain scenery homogenize into a creepy sameness. Forget about the “California dreamin’ ” tip above: This “trippy” feeling is actually pretty normal in almost any competitive footrace.

If you go out too fast, just slow down. Don’t be afraid to walk a bit to catch your breath. Let others pass, and even encourage them to “keep up the good work.” Before you know it, you’ll be remembering your own phone number again and can pick up the pace.

Tip #5: Be patient!

Maureen Kavanaugh, a runner-up in the 2003 40-Mile Mt. Mitchell Adventure Race, says she learned a few things from her experience in this year’s St. Patrick’s Day 10K Race, which also included the hilly terrain of Sunset Mountain. Kavanaugh suggests breaking up the race into “bits and pieces.”

“Try to start out at an easy pace the first couple of miles, and try to run relaxed,” she advises. “Later on, after you get into a rhythm, pick it up — and leave something for the last half of the race.”

Tip #6: Starting-line inferiority

I did a hill-climb event in Alaska a couple of years ago, and even though I’d raced competitively for more than 20 years, as I stood around before the start eyeing the competition, I felt like I was up against a group of Nordic ski champions. I knew better than to buy into this pre-race panic, however, so I took a deep breath, did my usual ritual, and hung tough with the rest of the runners. Halfway through the race, I was looking at the backs of nearly two-thirds of the field. Then, slowly but surely, I started passing some runners who went out too fast. And though I didn’t take home any hardware that day, I did make a respectable top-30 finish in a field of 200.

Don’t let sleek bodies, tight racing shorts and cocky language intimidate you before the race begins. Think back on your hard-fought training days, and stick to your individual racing plan. Chances are, you’ll be back in town enjoying the post-race party before some of the “name brand” competitors even cross the finish line.

Tip #7: It’s better to burn out than to fade away

Asheville Track Club elder statesman (and two-time club president) Bob Galloway has a totally different take on the Stampede. “Mess up your hamstrings [before the race] so you don’t have to do it!” Galloway advises eagerly. Seems he recently injured his lower hamstrings while cross training during the Robert Randolf and the Family Band concert at the Orange Peel last month. Galloway took pains to note that his wife, Barbara, wouldn’t be running the event either. “However,” predicted Galloway with a laugh, “if she did run, she would treat the race as a ‘garden tour’ and enjoy the scenery along the way.”

Tip #8. Drink, drink and be merry

Make sure you’re well hydrated before, during and after the race. I start drinking water as soon as I wake up and continue consuming 12-20 oz. every hour up to the start (more on hot, humid days). If temperatures are above 65 F, I continue to drink at least a few ounces at every water station. If you can’t force yourself to consume all the water, slowly pour the rest over your head. Within seconds, you’ll begin to feel a bit cooler (and, more importantly, more comfortable).

Tip #9. Human performance lab results

Asheville native Red Smith, who’s been running and racing for nearly 40 years, offers some sage advice. Smith reasoned, “The time you gain running fast up a steep hill is never enough to compensate for the energy you lose,” reasons Smith. “It’s better to conserve energy [until] it can be applied to running fast [on level and downhill terrain] and making up time.”

Tip #10: Racing karma

No matter how bad you feel during the race, every time you see a volunteer, traffic-control officer or supportive spectator, thank them for coming out. This “clean karma” approach usually creates a renewed energy level that just might prove to be what gently pushes you through to a rewarding finish.

The Mountain Xpress staff extends a hearty “Good Luck!” to all participants, organizers and volunteers at this year’s Sunset Stampede.

The Stampede scoop

Date: Saturday, May 3

The Sunset Stampede offers several scenic options for runners and walkers. The challenging 10-mile course winds up Old Toll Road and down Sunset and Patton mountains. The four-mile course rolls past some of Asheville’s most beautiful views and upscale North Asheville homes. For younger runners, race organizers will host a one-mile fun run beginning and ending at City/County Plaza.

A post-race celebration will include cold drinks, food from local restaurants, and two great party bands.

Races: 10-mile, four-mile & The Kid Stampede (one-mile fun run).

Starting times: The 10- and four-mile races start at 5 p.m. at the City/County Plaza. The Kid Stampede will begin after these races have ended.

Registration: Race-day registration at race info booth at City/County Plaza.

Entry fee (after 4/26): 10-mile, $35; four-mile, $30; Kid’s Stampede, $32 (all including $10 procrastination fee).

Perks: Shirts to all preregistered participants. Shirts and cowboy hats to all kid participants.

Awards: Cash prizes to the top overall and masters’ winners. Handcrafted age-group awards for the 10- and four-mile races.

Additional info: Visit www.sunsetstamped.com.

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