Perhaps it’s for both of these reasons the Uwharrie Mountain Runs have attracted such a ravenous following for two decades. The event offers athletes that rare opportunity to be miserable and joyous; to complain and celebrate simultaneously.
Staged near rual Ophir this past Saturday by Durham’s Bull City Running Company, the 20th annual Uwharrie Mountain Runs — rigorous 8-, 20- and 40-mile trail races — drew entrants from throughout the Southeast and beyond.
The off-road running Trailheads in Chapel Hill have virtually adopted the race as an annual rite of passage, and they treat Uwharrie as a fourth corner of the state’s Triangle region.
That fervor earned the Trailheads the team championship this past Saturday by way of five finishers among the top seven over the day’s three races — four of the top scorers being women.
The Trailheads (27 points) narrowly edged out Durham’s Bull City Running squad (30 points) and the Carolina Godiva Track Club (33 points), both of which are based in the Triangle.
But the races also drew hundreds from Central North Carolina who merely hoped to meet the challenge face-to-face.
“We’re still new to this — this is just our second year — but I think the race directors in previous years who are from this area really helped to cultivate a following,” said race director Kim Chapman, co-owner of Durham’s Bull City Running Company.
Ups and Downs
For the uninitiated, a pre-race warning that, “Yes, you will likely fall in the mud,” serves as an understatement. In years past, runners were told to run past mildly-injured runners “unless you see bones sticking out.”
Runners in all three races (staggered by one hour), ran just 100 yards of pavement before turning onto a single-track trail and ascending nearly 450 feet over the first three-quarters of a mile. Some charge up the hill; most take it as a conversational stroll — chattering away as if whistling in a graveyard. Toward the top, groups coalesce by pace, jackets are shed, quads ache, breathing quickens, and conversation wanes.
Rocks, roots, mud, calf-burning uphills, toe-crushing descents, and hip-deep stream crossings punish runners.
Weather can be changeable, and darkness can also creep up on 40-mile runners who are not allowed to venture past the 32-mile mark at 4 p.m. (nine hours into the race) without a headlamp.
Recent rain had turned the hilly trail particularly treacherous, and streams were swollen with run-off.
“Uwharrie is nothing if not an adventure,” said Chapman, who called it “hands-down the most logistically intensive event I’ve ever been a part of.”
Punctuating the same miles that topple and soak runners, smiling volunteers at aid stations every three miles dispensed well-deserved chocolate chip cookies, trail mix, sports drinks, potato chips and glowing encouragement that seemed to propel disheartened runners forward. At the finish lines, pottery awards crafted by Seagrove potter Michael Mahan awaited the winners.
“I think the Uwharrie (National Forest) is one of the best-kept secrets in the area,” Chapman said. “It’s an amazing resource to have just an hour-and-a-half from the (Triangle’s) back door. I think there would be a lot of happy people if we expanded the race, but we have to protect that resource as well.”
In 1972, Scoutmaster Joe Moffit blazed the 20.5-miles of Uwharrie Trail for his Boy Scout troop. Today, Scouts still maintain the trail, including Roger “Edge” Halchin, leader of Troup 43 in Mebane, and a member of the Trailheads himself. The day before Uwharrie, Halchin brought supplies in to the starting area in support of the race.
“I did a reconnaissance trip in December (with other Trailheads) to find out where the trouble spots on the trail are,” Halchin said. “Then I did a trip here with my Scout troop to hike the trail and mark it with blazes.”
Halchin’s volunteer spirit was felt keenly on race weekend.
“This year, I brought four tents, one screen room, six tarps, a full kitchen with a coffeemaker, four two-burner stoves, a burner stand with a (large) pot,” added Halchin, who typically serves a finish-line dessert crisp that is worth running 20 miles for.
Halchin and Greg “Half Dome” Cordell put up the tents, said original Trailhead member Steven “Squonk” Hoge, who ran the 20-miler Saturday, “but the Trailheads also stocked the aid stations with volunteers.”
Bruce “Goofus” Wilks said the event has been sacrosanct since it first drew the attention of the Trailheads.
“It was probably eight or nine years ago that I first came down to run this in a big group,” Wilks said, “and we ran the eight (mile).”
“The best part for me is seeing those 40-milers finish,” Chapman said. “They’re just ecstatic.”
First-time 20-finisher Kevin Weeks said he was ready to sign up for 2012 just 20 minutes after finishing.
“I’m ready to get up at 8 a.m. on the next sign-up day for the next one,” he said. “It’s hard work, but … it was an amazing race.”