Looking Glass 50-Miler Race Report, by Sophie Speidel

When I turned 55 in late 2017, I celebrated with a year of doing “hard and scary” things, including running my fifth 100-miler, which I documented in a series of essays on the Trail Sisters  platform. Among the many lessons gleaned that year, two stood out: runs that I perceived as “hard and scary” were actually totally within my grasp with the right preparation, mindset, and execution; and that birthday challenges were incredibly fun and rewarding ways to celebrate being a year wiser (and ward off the inevitable slowing down that comes with age!).

The fall foliage of western North Carolina, in the first mile of Peak To Creek Marathon.

For my 56th birthday, I decided that 2019 was the year to take on a few new projects and go after age group records at some of my favorite spring and early summer races. My mantra for the year was “pay attention” which seemed fitting given what’s going on in the world right now. It served as a reminder to seek a slower pace in daily life, to be deliberate and intentional in my relationships, and to look for the magic so easily missed in the hectic rush. “Pay attention” was also a call that the clock is ticking on my running, so I focused on going for a personal best (PR) time at the Peak To Creek Marathon in Lenoir, NC. My PR of 3:28 was set in 2001 at the Richmond Marathon, and I knew expert help would be needed to achieve this BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal). I asked Ann Dunn of Formula Fitness to coach me, which was really fun — and hard! She created a two month program following a summer of mountain running that mixed in short and long hill repeats, tempo runs and track workouts, and we focused training on gravel roads to mimic Peak to Creek’s net downhill on mostly rolling gravel. I enjoyed the change from longer, slower mountain miles to the focus on speed and turnover, and Ann had prepared me well when race day arrived in late October. I hit my splits and enjoyed the beautiful, quiet gravel roads at peak autumn foliage…but with temperatures in the 60s and humidity rising, I found myself with GI distress and thus lost precious minutes “scratching leaves” in the woods. Then at mile 23, on a flat section of road, I tripped, fell, and scraped up my knee which was both hilarious and ironic, as I was enjoying the lack of technical rocky trails! My finish time of 3:32 means I will be traveling back to Peak To Creek another year to try again —but that’s all good, because the race is a wonderful, low-key community marathon that has the ultra “vibe” that I am drawn to — especially the finish line party. I highly recommend P2C for trail runners who want to test themselves at a beautiful marathon without the hassle of urban logistics and 26.2 miles of pavement!

The finish line at Peak To Creek. Note the dirt on my shoulder from rolling on the gravel at mile 23. Clearly I wasn’t paying attention.

When I signed up for Peak To Creek back in March, I also signed up for the Looking Glass 50 Miler, held three weeks later and one hour southwest of Lenoir in Brevard, NC. I know, I know, who does that? It sounds counterintuitive, but the P2C marathon training block would set me up nicely for this ultra, which used sections of the uber-technical Art Loeb Trail, a long climb up to 5000’+ Pilot Mountain, the “intense” Farlow Gap Trail, and the beautiful Cove Creek waterfall trail. It also had two, five-mile sections of downhill on gravel and fire roads, which reminded me of Mountain Masochist 50 and Hellgate 100K. In fact, Looking Glass 50, aptly described by the race organizers as “an epic run through the heart of Pisgah,” felt as epic to me as Hellgate minus the midnight start. Our start time was 5:00am from Pilot Cove campground (where my husband Rusty and I rented a fabulous one-bedroom “cabin” — think high-end North Carolina mountain house), and we ran along the Davidson River in the dark before watching the sunrise from the Art Loeb Trail singletrack section. Pilot Mountain, at mile 15, was a grind but offered gorgeous views before we plunged down into the gorge. I enjoyed meeting (read: commiserating with) new friends on the ridiculous leaf-covered boulders of the Farlow Gap Trail, and hooted and hollered when I came upon Rusty at mile 24, who was mountain biking the trails with a friend. 

View from Pilot Mountain with a waning full moon.

At this point, it was about six hours into the race, and I was feeling tired and sluggish: having to concentrate so intently on staying upright in the technical sections was taking its toll. My “A” goal was to break 12 hours, so I had to suck it up and move well for the next six hours. Fortunately, the second half was more runnable, with long gravel downhill sections (hello, Peak To Creek!) mixed with a final 12-mile singletrack push up to John’s Rock, a popular hiking destination. The many hikers with whom we shared the trail were incredibly supportive as we ran/hiked by, offering up the trail and cheering us on. Brevard is a robust outdoor town that attracts bikers, hikers, and fishermen, so it wasn’t surprising that we were being greeted with such support. Tanawha Adventures, which does a fantastic job putting on Looking Glass 50 along with a host of other popular western NC ultras and trail races, donates net proceeds from each race to trail projects and stewardship, and I was glad to be part of this effort.

Unlike Peak to Creek, where keeping track of splits was the focus, it was  liberating to run all day at Looking Glass without a watch. I did ask fellow runners for the time of day at various points, so I knew I was holding onto sub-12 hour pace at mile 36. But my main goal was to stay present, admire the views and many waterfalls, and pay attention to my breath, perceived effort, and self-talk. Whenever I found myself going down the rabbit hole of negativity (“these rocks SUCK!”) I would quickly remind myself to pay attention and be grateful for a body that keeps holding up through years of adventures in the mountains. In the final downhill miles, as the sun set in my eyes, temperatures dropped, and shadows lengthened on the trail, all the memories of my favorite race came flooding back. I had been yearning to find an experience that gave me the same sense of hard-earned satisfaction as Hellgate, and cruising into the finish line area, with the clock reading 11:50, I realized I had found it at Looking Glass. What an amazingly hard and beautiful race! Sitting with Rusty, fellow finishers, and crews while sharing stories over chili, cornbread, and beers, I knew we would be back — and hopefully a few brave Cville and CAT friends will join us!

Coming into the Looking Glass finish

With Rusty at the finish line of Looking Glass 50, representing my favorites, Crozet Running 🙂