Over the river and through the woods – and in this case over and through water, rocks, roots, and mud, oh my! A couple weeks ago the Uwharries were home to the 20th annual Uwharrie Mountain Run! A true test of endurance and strength, this beloved trail run starts at the Jumpin’ Off Rock Trailhead, where runners ascend for the first mile and a half up rocky outcrops through mountain laurel and beautiful oak-hickory forests, before picking up the pace and taking on the ups and downs of the Uwharrie Trail, pounding through mud and slick leaves, stumbling over rocks and roots, and crossing rocky streams that almost every year are swelled to overfilling their banks. This level of difficulty in addition to the gorgeous scenery make this race one of the favored trail runs in the country. As testament to that fact, the online registration, for 500+ runners, fills up in a mere ten minutes or less.
The run features an 8-mile, 20-mile, and 40-mile race – from Jumpin’ Off Rock to Highway 109 for the 8 milers, all the way to the Wood Run Trailhead at Highway 24/27 for the 20 milers, and amazingly there and back for the 40-milers. The first year I volunteered for this race, I was the 20-mile timer, and the 40-milers arrived at the 20-mile finish while we were just getting settled in to prepare for the 20-milers to start coming in, sipping hot chocolate and snacking on trail cookies. This was a particularly cold day in February that year, and one of the first of these 40-mile runners to come in was wearing a hat with a sheet of ice on the side of it – I knew then that this was one intense run! This year was a little warmer, but no different in difficulty. Pictures from this year’s race showed some of the 20-mile runners standing in creeks with water up to their knees!
This was my second year doing the eight-mile run, and this year I battled a sinus infection and cold for two weeks prior to the event and didn’t really train as I would have liked, but I am so glad I took it on anyway, as it was gorgeous and challenging and rewarding beyond words. The initial ascent up Dark Mountain is a difficult task, but once you’ve made it to the top, you are energized and confident about the rest of the trail lying before you. It also helps that the woods you are in are simply stunning. In particular, one of my favorite places in all the Uwharries is just a few miles in on this trail – a beautiful stretch of trail that follows Panther Branch, a pristine stream the banks of which are laced with the beautiful golden leaves of beech trees mixed in with the greens of the mountain laurel, making for a really serene and gorgeous landscape.
The race director always starts by saying you will almost certainly fall down at least once. The first year I narrowly escaped, but was not so fortunate this year, as I took one spill and almost fell a few other times, but it is all just a part of the challenge. The run organizers for the past two years, Bull City Running, do a fantastic job putting the race together and organizing the many logistics. Race volunteers make this phenomenal event possible – with everything from packing all the items up for the aid stations, to helping set up for the race, manning aid stations, getting runners' check bags where they need to go, and much more. It is especially exciting to have all these smiling faces at the stations, energizing runners with snacks, drinks, and words of encouragement. U.S. Forest Service staff and NC Wildlife Resources Commission staff also help with the event. A huge thanks to all who work hard to help make this fantastic race possible. In addition to allowing runners the option to contribute towards making this a carbon neutral event, the proceeds from this race benefit The LandTrust for Central NC. This year the run was also the first race in the La Sportiva Mountain Cup Series, which made some special edition tees for the race with proceeds also going to The LandTrust.
Enjoying the beauty of the trail and the challenge of the terrain is truly a worthwhile experience in itself, and the joy of crossing the finish line certainly tops that off. As if that weren’t enough, runners are also rewarded with a beautiful, locally-made pottery signature pot. This year, all of the pots were made with local clay and fired in a wood kiln with pine, oak, and dogwood that was picked up on the Uwharrie Trail. This special commemorative award is a reminder of the race, and also the history and natural beauty of the area.
The race is almost always a go, even through wind and rain as we had this year, or snow flurries and particularly swift stream conditions two years ago. It has only been canceled one time in the twenty-year history of the event, for “snow hurricane conditions,” as the website says. However, because the race is held in the winter, and weather and other conditions can at times result in uncertainty as to whether the race will be a go or not, volunteers receive an email from the race director the day before the event confirming that “the race is on!” That is a perfect expression when I think of the excitement surrounding this wonderful event. Runners finish a little tired and a little sore, but rejuvenated in spirit, and already prepared to sign up for next year’s event – ready to hear “the race is on!”