Conquer the Rock 2022: Race Weekend Recap

Last Friday afternoon I loaded up my Ford Transit and along with my three oldest sons made the 90 minute drive over to Table Rock State Park in Pickens, SC. I had a campsite reserved at the park and was registered to run Conquer the Rock.

Conquer the Rock is a two-part race put on by Upstate Ultra consisting of the Foothills 50k on Saturday followed by the Bear Crawl 25k on Sunday. For those interested in making the most of their weekend, the Dare You Double offers runners the opportunity to tackle both races.

While I was registered to run both races, I was only mentally committed to running the 50k. The 25k on Sunday would only happen if I managed to finish the 50k uninjured, which seemed unlikely given the IT band flare ups suffered at my last two ultras back in the fall.

The Race Course

Conquer the Rock is a true mountain ultra. The race begins at a pavilion near one of the park’s two campgrounds. From there, runners make one loop around the campground and then head out onto the trails. Approximately 90% of the race consists of single track trails which are about as technical as any you’ll find in the deep south. And there is vert. A lot of vert.

This is the elevation profile for the course. The 25k covers this elevation once, the 50k does it twice.

About a mile and a half into the race, the trail starts to climb and continues to climb with very little relief for four straight miles and over 2,000 vertical feet to summit Pinnacle Mountain.

About 500 feet below the summit of Pinnacle Mountain the trail cross an exposed rock face that offers amazing views.

When runners reach the summit they’re rewarded with the most enjoyable stretch of the race: a two mile rolling (but primarily downhill) ramble along the ridge line between Pinnacle Mountain and Table Rock Mountain.

After two fun miles runners pass a water-only aid station and then start to climb again, this time up Table Rock Mountain. The climb up Table Rock is not as long or relentless as the climb up Pinnacle, but in sections it is significantly steeper and more technical than that prior climb, making it a very real challenge on tired legs.

The turnaround point is at the very end of Table Rock where runners are again rewarded by stunning views of the surrounding mountains and Table Rock Reservoir.

After reaching the final lookout point at the end of Table Rock runners turn around and retrace their steps back to the water-only aid station and then take a left to head down off the ridge line and back towards the state park.

The run down off Table Rock Mountain is about three miles long and almost entirely downhill. Runners descend about 1,500 feet in those three miles which make them a lot of fun for strong downhill runners but torture for the underprepared or anyone suffering any sort of muscle or joint issue in their legs or feet. Finally, the course comes off the trails and runners make their way back to the pavilion.

Upon reaching the pavilion, runners have covered approximately 14 miles and climbed as well as descended nearly 4,000 vertical feet. For the 50k, runners have to head back out, away from the comfort of the aid station, to complete a second lap of the course.

Foothills 50k, Saturday, March 5, 2022

My alarm went off at 6 AM on Saturday, March 5, 2022, but I was already up. It was cold and I’d been awake since 5, laying on an air mattress in the back of my Ford Transit. I finally got up at 5:45 and warmed up some water on a camp stove to make some instant coffee. I ate a Lara Bar while I waited.

The pavilion that Upstate Ultras would be using as race HQ was just down the hill from my campsite, and at 6:30 race HQ came to life with the playing of (as I recall) Enter Sandman by Metallica – clearly audible through the cold, thin morning air. If anyone in the campground wasn’t already awake on this cold morning, they were awake now.

The next hour was the usual: check-in and get my race bib, make two or three trips to the bathroom, check and then recheck that I had all the CLIFF and Honey Stinger gels, Liquid IV (electrolyte drink mix) packs, and fluids I’d need, and finally stand in cold, nervous excitement with about 150 other runners waiting on the final countdown.

Waiting to get started along with about 150 other runners.

At 7:30 we were finally underway. I took off and hung at the back of the lead pack. I trained hard for this race and felt as prepared as possible, so my race day strategy was to go out fast and just see how my body responded.

Pushing hard across a creek crossing on my way towards Pinnacle Mountain during my first loop of the Foothills 50k. Photo courtesy of Jay Baker Photography.

I felt strong and pushed hard for the first 10 miles, but somewhere along the way during the first loop my calves started to cramp. That was a surprise, because it’s very rare for me to experience muscle cramps. However, as I started on the long downhill section coming down off of Table Rock my calves were cramping badly and I found that I had to be careful to avoid tripping due to my cramping calves.

While my calves slowed my descent, they didn’t stop me, and when I reached the short asphalt section between the trails and pavilion the cramping had abated, but my calves were in bad shape, tight and extremely sore.

Back at the pavilion aid station I loaded up on calories, sodium, electrolytes, and water, and headed back out for round 2.

The second climb up Pinnacle Mountain was very hard. My legs were very fatigued and my calves in particular were in bad shape. I managed to keep moving all the way up the mountain, but I had slowed down quite a bit from the pace I managed during the first loop.

During the downhill section between Pinnacle and Table Rock my quads and adductors also started cramping and my calves rejoined the party for good measure. Wonderful. I couldn’t move fast, but I kept moving.

The climb up Table Rock proved to offer some relief. While the climb was difficult, the muscle cramps in my legs went away during the climb. However, the trip back down from Table Rock proved to be very challenging as my calves, quads, and adductors all cramped repeatedly during the long downhill run.

Finally, I made it back to the pavilion with a clock time of 7:29:26. Good enough for 16th out of 98 runners who made it to the finish line.

Collecting proof that I did in fact conquer that damn rock during the Foothills 50k.

Bear Crawl 25k, Sunday, March 6, 2022

I knew going into the weekend that I would do everything in my power to finish the Foothills 50k on Saturday. However, I was worried I might end up with IT band issues, and if that happened I planned to skip the 25k on Sunday. While my legs cramped badly during the 50k, my IT bands help up fine, so I got up at 6 AM on Sunday and started getting ready to run the 25k.

After the 50k on Saturday I drank a ton of water and electrolytes and ate two full meals with lots of protein and carbs. My calves were still tight and painful when I went to bed Saturday, but on Sunday morning when I got up they felt a lot better. I was definitely carrying some fatigue and soreness from the day before, but overall I really felt pretty good.

Back for round 2! Looking a little less fresh than the day before but ready to go.

7:30 came quickly and I started the race cautiously. My first mile pace was 8:45 on Saturday and I slowed to 10:17 on Sunday. My goals for Sunday weren’t ambitious. Just finish uninjured and have a good time.

The climb up Pinnacle was a challenge, but not nearly as hard as I’d worried it might be. It was certainly easier than my second trip up Pinnacle the day before. When I reached the top my legs felt pretty great and I started to push the pace a little.

Moving a little slower on Sunday across a creek crossing on the way towards Pinnacle Mountain. Photo courtesy of Jay Baker Photography.

I felt good all along the ridge line between Pinnacle and Table Rock and reached the summit of Table Rock without any cramping issues. During the last five miles I felt great and managed to run faster than I had run those same miles during my first loop the day before.

I made my way back to the pavilion and finished in 3:25:12 which placed me in 21st place out of 167 finishers.

Relieved to be done, collecting my Bear Crawl 25k finisher’s medal.

A Great Weekend in the Woods with Friends and Family

My three oldest sons came with me to Conquer the Rock. They didn’t run the race. Their ideas about running are measured in seconds and meters or as the distance between two bases on a baseball diamond. But they camped, and we ate out together after the race both days, and laughed a lot, and they waited for me near the finish line and ran the last hundred yards with me each day.

Campfire shenanigans.
Got to keep that fire going!

This is the first ultra where I’ve managed to get some of my family members to coming along and it went even better than I’d hoped. It was fantastic to have them there and I hope to find ways to get them to future ultras, and maybe someday to make the journey through the woods with me.

My running buddy Alex was supposed to run the Dare You Double along with me. However, after a frustrating combination of illness to start the year, challenges finding time for training, and minor injuries over the last few weeks, the straw that broke the camel’s back was a popped air mattress and the cold weather that left Alex with just three hours of fitful sleep Friday night. Alex was a last minute DNS but he still hung out with us Friday evening and stuck around to see me through the first loop on Saturday. I enjoyed having him around for the first part of the weekend.

Anyone who has run an ultra knows there are ample opportunities to make friends out on the trails. In any ultra you’re spending several hours out on the course, and you tend to run near a lot of the same folks for most of the race. This past weekend I was fortunate to spend a lot of time running with a new friend, Jason. We spent a good hour or more pacing off each other on Saturday and then spent half of the race pacing each other on Sunday. I’ve managed to make at least one new friend at every ultra I’ve run and it was Jason’s turn this weekend. I hope our trails cross again soon!

My new friend Jason and I, on our way up Pinnacle Mountain during the Bear Crawl 25k.

Takeaways and Lessons Learned

I’m not sure why my legs cramped so badly on Saturday but I think those cramps probably cost me 20 or 30 minutes in the 50k, and the residual soreness and tightness probably cost me another 10 minutes on Sunday. I’ve never had significant muscle cramp issues in the past, so I’m chalking up the issues I had this past weekend to a one-off fluke. However, I’ll definitely pay closer attention to my hydration in the days leading up to my next ultra in the hopes of avoiding a repeat of that frustrating and painful development.

My knees held up to the pounding elevation changes beautifully during Conquer the Rock, a significant improvement from the issues I had at both Sky to Summit and Lady of the Lake back in the fall. I attribute that improvement to two factors:

  1. I was very intentional about doing a lot of uphill and downhill running in the lead up to this race. While I got plenty of vert while training for those prior races, most of my climbing was power hiking and I was overly cautious and conservative with my downhill running.
  2. I was very intentional about getting in a lot of medium distance (6-10 mile) runs over the last few months paired with less punishing long runs (15-25 miles). On the other hand, my training back over the summer consisted of monster efforts on the weekends (20-50 miles) paired with just a few short runs (3-5 miles) during the week.

While I can’t be sure that these are the reasons why my legs and knees held up, my knees and legs did hold up this time around and a strong correlation at least suggests I’m on the right track.

What’s Next?

I have three more races in mind for the rest of 2022.

  • In June, I’m registered to run the Rabun Half Marathon – a fun 11ish mile trail and FSR run in north Georgia. I ran it for the first time last year and suspect it will be an annual tradition.
  • In October, I’m registered for the Yeti Snakebite 50/50 50k at Sweetwater State Park just outside of Atlanta.
  • Lastly, I plan to register for the MIA 30hr option at the Prisoner of War Ultra held at Camp Croft State Park in Spartanburg, SC on December 10, 2022 (registration opens July 1, 2022) with hopes of completing my first hundred miler.

Will I be back for Conquer the Rock in 2023? I don’t know. Right now, I don’t plan to come back next year because I hope to take a shot at the Georgia Death Race in March 2023. However, if that plan doesn’t pan out then I may be back in Pickens for next year’s run up the rock.

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