Grayson Highlands run

It’s dark and 37 degrees. I’m surrounded by anxious, racing hearts ready for our feet to pound the dirt. The race director says “Go” and we excitedly cross the start mat to embark on our mountain adventure through Grayson Highlands State Park.
About six months prior to Saturday, May 1, I was lying in bed looking at the race website and contemplating whether to sign up or not. I took a leap of faith, purchased my ticket and then had the immediate feeling of regret and excitement.
I have been running since I was in the seventh grade, running my first 5K (3.1 miles) with my dad. From there, I went on to run track and cross country in high school, not truly feeling the love for running until my senior year. My journey toward becoming a lifelong runner developed when I began running longer distances during my freshman year at Brevard College and running the trails through Pisgah National Forest.
Although I had run half and full marathons previously, I ran my first ultra-marathon, training with my dad and husband (to be at the time), in my late 20s; however, after a knee injury put me out of ultra-running for nearly seven years and having two children, I thought I’d never get to run another one until last year. Adding strength training into my workouts was a game changer.
Having signed up for the Grayson Highlands 50-miler, I wanted to find someone to train with, so I started a Facebook running group and found Lindsey Helberg, a nurse, mom of two and wife from Greensboro who had signed up for the same race and was looking for a running partner.
So, I had a running partner, but training for a race this distance with kids, along with a husband who is also an ultra-runner, took team work, juggling the kids and alternating long running days.
To train, I set out to run four days a week. My training was on track for the first month; however, after being quarantined at home with two children and then later being met with time restraints and exhaustion from lack of sleep and the second vaccine dose, I was only able to get in one long run a week for the next two months. So, as the race date drew closer, I became more and more anxious that I wouldn’t be ready, that I would fail. My husband, Corey, on the other hand, reassured me that I was well prepared, and I was grateful that he wanted to come with me to help crew me during the race.
Knowing that I am not a morning person and the race would be starting at 6 a.m., we chose to car camp at the state park campground the night before, just a mile or so from the start line, after going to the packet pick up on White Top Mountain. While it was a beautiful spot with 250-degree views, the cold air cut through to the bone with what I am guessing were 30 mile an hour winds.
The next morning, after making my way to the start line, I was surprised with how calm the wind was compared to the night before. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day of sunshine, comfortable temperatures and nearly clear blue skies.
As the runners took off in the dark with lights bouncing up and down, we headed into the woods just in time to turn them off. The first sight of the day was a beautiful waterfall. Later, throughout the race, we encountered amazing views, ponies, and long horn cattle. The ponies, of course, were my favorite and aren’t shy around visitors.
And unlike here in the Piedmont, it looked as though spring had only just begun there. Instead of a green landscape, the mountains were still brown from the barren trees, but it didn’t take away from the beauty.
Along with the incredible landscape that surrounded us, we were also met with some of Mother Nature’s challenges. And, while some people would shy away from these challenges – numerous creek crossings, roots, fallen trees, rocks, scree, briars, mud, switchbacks, and what seemed like never-ending hills – we met the challenges head on.
Truly, though, my only nemeses were the scree and large, loose rocks because I kept turning my already injured ankle. I even tripped once and dove to the ground, catching myself with the skin on my forearms.
Other challenges we faced included unwell marked trails, stomach problems, and blisters. But we pushed on through and checked our map when needed.
The race had a 14 hour, 30 minutes cut off time with cut off times at various aid stations as well. Starting out, our only goal was the finish line. To make sure that we finished, Helberg and I made sure to be well ahead of the aid station cut off times. It helped that both of our husbands crewed us at the three aid stations we stopped at. We chose not to stop at all of them to save time. They filled our water, brought us food, helped us change socks and shoes, applied sunscreen, and did whatever else we needed. They were amazing!
For fuel, I unshamefully carried junk food, including Combos and Moon Pies. But, at the aid stations, I also grabbed boiled potatoes, pickles, potato chips and a Coke. When I wasn’t eating what I call “real food,” I consumed gels, salt chews and occasionally some caffeine.
In total, the race had an elevation change of 7,500 feet over the 50 miles, and we were able to finish well ahead of our goal at 12 hours and 57 minutes.
During the run, Helberg asked me if I would like to do another 50 miler and I said, “Without a doubt, yes.” She agreed. We loved every minute of the run. It was truly a race based on teamwork and running smart. When I needed her, she led us and when she needed me, I was able to lead. We crossed the finish line with grins on our faces and running with our hands in the air.
And already on the books, I’m signed up for the Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock 50K (31 miles) in October. But I know there will be more races from now until then and after.

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