City: Cary, NC Date: 03/16/2014
Distance: Half Marathon (13.1 miles)
Weather: Mid-40s at start; overcast and mildly humid
Course: Hilly start and finish, but the vast majority of it was on the soft American Tobacco Trail, one of my favorite places in the area to run and a common training place for me
Summary: A training run with friends and overall a great race – highly recommend this one!
The American Tobacco Trail was a railroad that was built from, generally speaking, south west Wake County (New Hill, to be exact) to Durham to transport tobacco from the farmers in the southern part of the county to the cigarette factories in Durham. For the longest time, I thought this railroad was ancient; something of a relic that was used and torn up long before I arrived on the scene. To some extent, that is true: there was a rail line the Duke family built in the late 1890s to supply their factories. However… I was looking up facts about it to describe to out of state friends of mine only to discover this part – that is now the ATT – was built in the 1970s and primarily used in the 1980s, and then torn out when another nearby line was more affordable and efficient.
In the early 1990s, some folks got together and said, “hey… um… this would be a pretty cool place for us to ride our bikes and horses and maybe, ya know, run or stuff…” and the American Tobacco Trail was born. It starts in the town of Apex, NC and now (just the week before this race) goes all the way to downtown Durham – a hearty 22 miles. It is mixed terrain – some of it paved, some gravel, some sandy – but all of it wide and relatively speaking to the other areas around here, kinda flat. It is shaded and picturesque and it is one of my favorite places to run in the area and I talk about it constantly. One day, I’ll go the distance to Durham… just need to talk someone into meeting me there – haha.
Often, when I run on it, I think about what it used to be, though. The cargo it used to take. And, what that cargo ended up being. Having lived in this area my whole life, the sight (and aroma) of tobacco was not an uncommon thing. I always knew what it made – even used the products at one point in my life (having now been removed from that product 11 years! woo hoo)… but, with all the litigation surrounding tobacco companies in the last 20-30 years, the region that relied on it so heavily has seen sooooo many changes in that time: you can no longer smoke inside any establishments anywhere in public – and in some places, you can’t even smoke in your own house! There are places that have a “non-smoking” barrier around them of x number of feet (hospitals, in particular) so the opportunity to smoke is becoming smaller and smaller, and the cost of a pack is becoming more and more expensive (I actually don’t even know because you don’t see prices advertised any more). I’m glad I quit, and in my experience – to me at least – using the American Tobacco trail for running is my way of making up for ever having been a smoker in the first place.
It is remote, though – there are a handful of larger entrances with (ahem) out houses (not even joking – and, no hillbilly jokes – at least it is a place to go!) and once you are on the trail, you are pretty much on your own, much like Umstead. There are not many (if any) water stops and the outhouses (that I know of) are at miles zero, 5.5 and 12. Thaaaatttsss about it. So, when running this trail, you really need to plan accordingly, and as such, it is not uncommon to see coolers and bags with bottles of Gatorade and water stashed at many points along the trail. Still… despite all the history and the remoteness of it (or maybe the remoteness is something I like about it), I am drawn to it and I come here often to bang out a long run in preparation for races. My first ever 18, 20 and 22 milers were all done on the ATT, and I always think about those runs when I’m on it.
During the course of my marathon training, I’ve done a couple of other “races” that I wove into longer runs or swapped with longer runs so I could do them. For example: I ran the Krispy Kreme Challenge (I didn’t challenge it, though) in the middle of an 18 miler; I swapped a hearty, butt-kicking run in Umstead so I could “not race” the St. Paddys Run Green 8k (sigh). And, I let out a pretty heavy sigh when I realized – again – I would not be able to do the Tobacco Road Half Marathon because of my Marathon training… I would make it work, though. I wanted to do it. I’ll… I’ll… I’ll swap out runs! I’ll beg borrow and steal runs to make it work, and, so help me, if I had to run an extra 7 miles after, then, damnit, I would. So, with hesitation, I opened my training plan, and – hallelujah – 14 on the plan! Ha ha! I signed up that minute and got very excited for this race. I mentioned it at work to my running buddies, who both ended up signing up, too.
Then, to my surprise and delight, one of my run friends from the virtual run group – also working on a 50-state (full) marathon goal (and one of the guys who ran in Vegas with me) – decided to run the full. I was thrilled to host someone here and to see him again! I was very excited I would know people at the race, now: my work run buddies, my 50-stater friend, and a large group of my gym run group decided they, too, would buckle to runner peer pressure and run the half. Woo hoo!
Because this was a “training” run for me, though, I decided to run it with my coworker that I ran with in Skinny Turkey. We have a similar pace and he’s always entertaining. I needed someone to keep my behind in check because I did NOT want to race this race and I don’t want to PR (that is tough to say, but even tougher to write publicly for posterity, trust me).
The day before the race, I went to pick up my out of town friend and one of his 50-stater friends and take them on a tour of downtown Raleighwood. We had the St. Patrick’s day parade and the St. Pat’s festival going on that day, so it was uber crowded. We went to Tir Na Nog (home of my nOg Run Club) and had a snack, then walked around for a bit, showing them parts of the town. I took them back to their hotel, and then met them for dinner at an Italian place in Cary so they could meet another friend of ours from the group who was not running. We had a great time at dinner chatting, but by around 9, we were all pretty tired and called it a night. I went home, laid all my stuff out, and went to bed.
The parking was supposed to be… interesting. They apparently had worked out a lot of logistics over the last couple of years, so it was to be better this year than in the past. The start was in a park in Cary, and, well, there is limited parking there. If you wanted to park close to the start line, you had to buy a parking pass; if not, you could park about 6 miles away (in RTP), and take a bus. Because I’m a cheapskate, I decided to carpool with one of my coworkers and take the bus. However, in conversations the previous day with my 50-stater friend, I became worried that we might not make it on time if we got to the RTP parking lot at 6:30 (the race starts at 7) and everyone else I knew said they planned to be *in the park* by 6, so I asked my co-worker to be at my house by 5:45 and he agreed.
I got up, got dressed, ate, stretched, drank water and all the little things I do, and waited. And waited. I started to get worried as it approached 5:50 and my friend wasn’t there yet. As soon as I picked up my phone to text him, I got a frantic “oh crap, I overslept” text from him. No worries, I told him. I’ll head down there separately and just meet you there. He got to the park about 10 minutes after me! what? haha. Figures. Overall, though, I thought the parking went smoothly. There were several shuttles and the company that let us use their lot had plenty of parking.
We walked around, dropped off our check stuff and looked for our other coworker and my 50-stater friend. It was pretty crowded and there were tons of tents – including a huge tent they erected at the last minute because of the call for rain. We finally found everyone just a few minutes before start, and wished everyone luck. Both races started at the same time, so we all found our respective places, lined up, sang the National Anthem, and then we were off. I ran with my two coworkers for a bit, but one took off and we just let him go. I chit chatted a bit at the beginning, but, to be honest, I wasn’t feeling very chatty. I left my music at home because I fully expected to pass the couple of hours talking nonsense and cutting jokes left and right like we usually do. But… I wasn’t feeling it. Not like I usually do with him. He’s the kind of person that just brings up one thing and – like YouTube or Wikipedia – you end up down a rabbit hole of topics and you always think “how’d I get here?”
Not today. Nothing was wrong… just didn’t have a lot to say.
The first couple of miles were getting out of the park and down a road (literally) until you got to the ATT. That part was rolly, but mostly down hill. I must admit, though, I was kind of surprised when we got to the ATT that we were already there – just didn’t seem like it should be there yet. The Half Marathoners turned left – going toward Apex – and the full marathoners turned right – going toward Durham. You can see a huge split veering left and about half as many veering right. As wide as the ATT is, I always wondered how it would be possible to have that many people on it at a time. Now I know! The full marathoners went toward Durham, turned around, and then came back to Apex. I thought that part was very well organized and planned.
Once we turned onto the ATT, I completely zoned out… I think I actually told someone later that I was “all zenny and stuff”, meaning, I know my brain was working, but I’ll be damned, I didn’t think a thing. I was truly focused just on my running and trying not to leave my friend behind and just zoom out of there. There have been a few rare moments in my running life when I have been “all zenny and stuff” with a completely blank brain and no music to ignore. The other most recent example was in Savannah Rock and Roll and I had a PR in that race, so I was a little worried about my zennyness.
I snapped out of zennyness when I began approaching the turnaround at about mile 7. I knew my other friend was way ahead of me and now I was thinking of him: how is HE doing? Making his goal? That, of course, made me think of my long run buddy that I did the Krispy Kreme Challenge craziness (and the 19.5 mi with the chest cold) – he was running his first full at the same time I was running this race… how is HE doing? Then, of course, that made me think about MY marathon, and I freaked out a little, then I got a grip and started looking for my friend in THIS race. I was probably annoying the bejesus out of the way-backers as I was hovering and darting in and out on the cusp of the line so we could see our friend and high five him on his way back. We finally saw him, yelled out to him, and carried on our merry way.
One notable thing that, between zennyness moments, I noticed: there was a lot more crowd support and cheering than I expected. It is not exactly an easy place to have people get to, so the fact there was anyone at all, to me, is impressive. Remember the remoteness of it I mentioned before? I didn’t expect to see anyone, yet people came out to support us. Thank you to those folks!
Around mile 9, my running buddy started to feel the pain of the miles. He was starting to hit a wall, so we did some walk/runs for a bit. He regained composure, we ran slowly, and then he hit it again and we walked for a bit. By the time we got to about 10.5, he was a good 20 feet behind me – but I slowed and looked for him; as he caught up, we went along faster for a bit, but he lost steam and couldn’t hold it and fell behind again. At mile 11 he said “go ahead so you can get sub-2 hour. I’ll be OK and I won’t be that far behind you.” I asked if he was sure and he shooed me, so I left. The last two miles were my fastest of the whole race, even up hill.
I finished at a chip time of 1:58 and was delighted with my time. My in-front-of-me friend exceeded his goal (which made me happier than I can express) and my behind-me friend made his goal exactly (which made me happier than I can express). We hung around for a little bit of time, but I was getting cold and shivering a lot and still had a LOT of chest congestion and didn’t want to stand around in the rain so I left.
My 50-stater friend got a BQ!!!! woo hoo!
This was a small race, but it was VERY well run and had a lot of support. I have done the largest race in the US and some of the smaller races and more and more, these smaller races are by far my preference. If you are a 50-stater, I recommend this one for your NC race.