Pilot Mountain Payback Trail Marathon
Place: 14th out of 42 finishers
The Pilot Mountain Payback marathon is one of my favorite races. It was my first marathon back in 2011. I train on the course most weekends. It's local so my family is able to come watch. It's just a great race. Usually held in February, it was postponed this year due to the 18 inches of snow we received just days before the race. While the snow made for a brutal Holiday Lake 50k, it allowed me to pencil in PMPB after not thinking I would be able to race it this year.
When held in February, the race begins at 9am given sunrise time, etc. When I registered for the race, I'm almost certain the website stated the race began at 8am, which made sense given that A) sunrise is much earlier in April than in February and B) generally speaking it's warmer in the spring than the winter. The night before the race I even checked the website and there was a clock counting down to 8am Saturday morning. But it also said the race began at 9am. I didn't know what to believe.
Nevertheless, Jon and I showed up around 7:15 that morning ready to run. We were the first runners there. A couple of guys from the timing company had just started unpacking and I asked what time the race started. One of them said 9:00. I said, "You know the website has a countdown to 8am, right?" To which he replied, "Not my job, buddy." I guess he woke up on the wrong side of the bed. The race was under new management this year, and immediately I was not impressed.
With over 90 minutes to spare before the start, and since Jon and I had decided not to race, but instead just treat this as a long training run, we headed out for a warmup. I showed him some trails he had never ran before and ended up doing a nice 3.6 miles before the race start. We spent the last few minutes before race talking to a few friends and soon we headed off.
The first of many creek crossings comes within 100 ft. of the start line. You can't avoid getting wet in this race. A long uphill gravel road after that and while a lot of people were running up, Jon and I decided to walk. After running this parts of this course almost every weekend, and this being my fourth year running the race, I know it like the back of my hand. I know that pace is key. If you start out too fast, the second half of the race will chew you up and spit you out and you'll end up doing the death march to the finish. So we walked. Once we got to the top of the road, the former race director was there to point us to the trail. We said hello and hit a nice mix of single/double track trail. Down the hill and back to the road that leads in to the park, we have to cross two more creek crossings. You can avoid getting wet hear but what's the point?
Outside the first section, we cross a road and hit the Corridor Trail which is a 6.15 mile one way trail that is a constant up and down. There are few flat sections so you're either going up or running down. It's a nice section consisting of mostly double track and wider trails, a lot of the time used by horses. Luckily the horses stayed home for the race as I did not encounter any. Jon and I ran this section at a comfortable pace while talking amongst ourselves and other runners.
As we near the end of the section, the leaders of the half marathon pass us in the opposite direction. We cheer and congratulate each runner as they pass by and we concluded the Corridor section with a stop at the aid station. Half marathon runners turn around here and head back to the start/finish line but full marathon runners cross another road and head up the mountain trail to the summit of Pilot Mountain. Jon and I are fortunate that we train on this course and given that this was my fourth running of the race, I knew where to go. Others weren't so lucky.
Jon and I headed up the mountain trail. I love this trail. It's about 2.35 miles one way and a lot of rocky sections. It helped me prepare for MMT100 as it was the closest thing I could get to the rocky terrain of that course. We ran the downs and walked the ups. The day was heating up but it was breezy so tolerable. Soon we reached the end of the trail which gives you the option to go to the left or right. Course goes to the left but some people, whom we encountered later, went to the right. Another blunder. Regardless, we press on. As we near another fork in the trail, the previous race director was there to greet us. We talked for a minute and then continued to the summit.
As we near the top, I could see the school where Summer teaches. Unfortunately, too many snow days forced them to have Saturday school and it just so happened to be on the day of this race, at which she loves to come be a spectator. I waved and kept climbing.
Soon we reached the top and there were my parents and Summer's parents and sweet little Gemma. She was too busy playing in the dirt to realize I was there. Expecting me sooner, my mom asked me why I was so slow to arrive. I told her I was there to run instead of race and that Jon and I were staying together for the day. We talked for a few minutes but then headed toward the knob.
The trail that goes around the knob can be ran in any direction. But I believe in a race, everyone should go the same way. That was not the case today as the volunteer said we could go either way. As we finished the loop around the knob, another runner was running toward us and slowed down thinking he was going the wrong way. We told him they said we could go either way but again, this makes things confusing for runners.
The next section runs along the west side of the mountain. The terrain is tough with a lot of steps made out of rocks. This is also where rock climbers hang out as there are a few sections worth climbing. This section also intersects where the Mountain trail ends. Here we encountered other runners who were going the opposite direction as us. The volunteer who was standing at this intersection said they made a wrong turn. I wasn't quite clear on what that meant but as we passed the former race director again, he explained to us that those people had taken a right instead of a left at the halfway point and not gone up the mountain trail. Total mind blow as this could have easily been avoided with a simple sign directing the runners to the Mountain trail.
Jon and I press on though and head down the Grindstone trail. It's about a mile downhill, semi-steep in one part. The end of the downhill puts you right at the campground and some nice single track trail the leads to the visitor's center. I always enjoy running this section because it is twisty and curvy, up and down. The Grindstone trail ends and the Grassy Ridge trail begins and more of the same, nice trails that take you to the park perimeter. Some gravel road trail and some double track and soon we're back at the half marathon turnaround aid station. We didn't stay for long here and headed back onto the Corridor Trail that takes you to the finish.
It was beginning to warm up as we headed down this section. Another runner, Mark, had joined Jon and I. We talked for quite a while as Jon ran behind us. It seemed as though the heat was getting to him or something. Eventually he told us to continue ahead so we did. Soon enough Mark had to stop as well and I kept going. I was feeling good. I picked up the pace a little and started looking at my watch. I had said I wanted to run under 5 hours, which was still achievable. Although I wasn't there to 'race', I still had that mentality as I drew closer to the finish. I didn't want to be passed. So I kept picking up the pace which was tough because temps had risen into the 80's by this point.
I came to the end of the Corridor trail and crossed the road and hit the trail into Yadkin Island Park. Only a mile or so to the finish. Crossing one creek, I come out on the gravel road entrance and see another friend already in his car leaving. I stopped to say congratulations and he informed me he finished in 3rd place. An amazing job since I believe it was his first race of this distance.
Two more creek crossings, the second of which was almost knee high (which felt really good), and the finish line was in sight. No one to pass. No one to pass me. I cruised in with a time of 4h48m40s. Good enough for 14th place out of 42 finishers. Jon came in about 13 minutes later. It was a good run for us but obviously could have been handled better by race management. There was nothing left to snack on at the end either so we quickly departed for home. Satisfied with the day, we had covered almost 28 miles with about 4,500 ft. of elevation gain, which proved to be a good long run before Promise Land 50k++.