On June 3rd, 2017, I ran the Downhill@Dawn Half Marathon in Ridgecrest, North Carolina with friends Tommy, Chris, & Brian. Tommy & Brian love trail running and convinced me earlier in the year that I needed to join them for this race. Since it is a half marathon, it did not take much convincing. So, if I was going to endure this unique experience, I thought I needed to bring along another friend, so I invited my friend Chris to meet us there. This was not a new state for me toward my 50 By 50 Challenge, it was just a fun weekend with friends.
My wife and I along with Tommy and his wife made the four hour journey up on Friday afternoon. We went straight to the Ridgecrest Conference Center for the race expo to pick up our packets. This was convenient because not only was the expo here, but it was where the race started, and where we were staying for the evening. Staying on property at the conference center was a benefit because they are tax exempt, so you don’t have to pay extra for fees with normal hotels.
Because we stayed on property at the Conference Center, we were able to sleep a little later, because the start was literally right outside our room. I think I woke up about 5am for the 6am start, it was nice!
So, why is this race so unique? The name is in the title…. DOWNHILL…. Now don’t let the name fool you, a good majority of this race is downhill as you will see throughout this recap; however, there are a few uphills that will bite you if you are not ready, but I digress. Let’s start at the beginning.
This unique half marathon starts at the Ridgecrest Conference Center, a Christian retreat destination, and winds it’s way for 13.1 miles around Black Mountain, North Carolina, down the Old Fort Mountain on Old Highway 70 and finish at First Baptist Church, Old Fort, North Carolina. The course contains paved mountain roads and wide gravel trails that wind through the majestic wooded forests of North Carolina’s Black Mountain area, which lies near the southern edge of the Pisgah National Forest.
As stated above, this is a point-to-point race that starts at dawn, at 6:01 AM to be exact. Me and the gang were ready to take on the course!
Just look at that downhill slope to start the race!
From the conference center, the first three miles is on paved roads that wind between Ridgecrest and the nearby town of Black Mountain. This first few miles are mostly downhill, and makes you feel real good about the day. Then, at miles 3 and 4, there is an uphill climb back to the Ridgecrest campus. Be prepared!
I think I was already praying here in this picture…
However, after you get past this hill, the next several miles go through forest roads and gravel trails, which present you with a gradual, switch back downhill slope for miles 5 through 9.
This stretch of the race is where it gets it’s name. This is not only the downhill portion of the race, but just a beautiful, natural section of the course with great tree coverage to block the sun. Through the winding mountains, we pass by the Old Geyser Park as well as mountain streams and rivers alongside the roads and trails heading downward from Old Fort Mountain, which changes from paved to gravel trails through this stretch.
At about mile 10, the course changes back from gravel to paved roads. We follow Mill Creek Road for a couple of miles until we get to Highway 70, which took us the last few miles into the town of Old Fort, where we finished the race at the Old Fort Baptist Church on East Main Street. Be warned… The finish line is in the back of the church’s parking lot, so do not slow up as you come up to the church & crowd. You have to make a hard left just beyond the church, to turn into the parking lot then wind your way back to the finish area.
This was a great shot they took of the three of us. Brian was really “hauling the mail” on this day and blitzed right past Tommy and I. He was in the zone!
The finish area does provide water and energy drinks along with CHOCOLATE MILK! Also, there are shuttles that will take you back to the Ridgecrest campus.
There were aid stations about every two miles, so they took really good care of you along the route.
The race temperatures were about 58 degrees at the start and about 74 degrees at the finish.
As for my performance, even though I ran a 1:56:43 (8:54 pace), I felt I could have done far better. There were a couple of factors, the first being that I did not realize the uphill portions were no joke, and secondly, it started to warm up pretty fast near the end and no tree coverage to block the sun. However, I was really excited to run the race with Tommy, Brian, & Chris. I think we may be doing this race again next year and hopefully I will be able to perform even better now that I know what to expect. Both Brian & Chris set PRs in the race so that was very exciting to be apart of for them.
If you are in need of a race to check North Carolina off your Fifty States Challenge, I would recommend you try this one out. It is a small race of less than 500 runners, so it thins out pretty quickly.
Cannot wait to try it again next year!