Thursday, September 15, 2016

Smoky Mountain National Park Half Marathon

Mid-commute from Indiana to Tennessee, we stopped for a hike in Berea, Kentucky.

Followed by a dinner stop in Powell, Tennessee at the Front Porch Restaurant.

Simply charming.

Highlight of the trip was when this fella crossed our path.  Mr. Brown Bear seemed not the least bit rattled about holding up traffic or creating quite a stir among park guests.

The bear didn't stop us from enjoying our first hike in the Smoky Mountains.

We dove right into celebrating the national parks and a race close to its borders.

Love this sign!

First day hike with falls as a beautiful backdrop.

Smiles.  Pre-run.  With sunshine about to peak over the mountains.

Smiles still there with post-run glow.

Claudia earned a 3rd place overall finisher's award. Woo hoo!

Her prize:  a national park pass!

I claimed the 3rd master's winner award.

And scored a national park pass too!

Basking in our 3rd place awards!

And because running is just not enough exercise (sarcasm), we hiked later that day.

On the first hike, we attempted to reach the Appalachian Trail.  But when the trail seemingly disappeared and daylight was dwindling, we nixed those plans.

The beauty about the Smoky Mountain National Park is that the trails are everywhere!

My dear friend Claudia decided it wasn't enough to run a race in every state.  She also needed to compete in all the national park runs.  When she spotted the Smoky Mountain National Park race and suggested we attend the race, I could think of not one single good reason to say no.

On Thursday, Claudia, Sarah and I hopped into our rented sedan.  We took the six hour trek down to Townsend, Tennessee (the self-proclaimed quieter side of the Smoky Mountain National Park).

Townsend is a sleepy Appalachian town who is happy to host the onslaught of park tourists, but in a more understated way than its flasher counterpart: Gatlinburg.  In Townsend, one bypasses the go-carts in favor of a comfy rocking chair with a clear view of the mountains.  Dining in Townsend is down-home fare with prices that even the stingiest of patrons will relish.  Those who work and live in Townsend dip their words in southern charm and hospitality.

If I would use one word to describe this weekend it would be active.  My backside only made contact with a seat while in the car to and from Indiana.  The rest of the time, we were hiking or running.  (And as the cruelest injustice, I did not shed one single pound!)  

The day before the race, we took the Cade's Cove loop; an 11-mile course that lapped Smoky Mountain Meadows and historic structures from original park settlers.  During this loop, we stumbled upon a bear.  He shot out of the bushes and wandered onto the road directly in front of our car.  The park is plastered with signs warning about the dangers of bears, and I've seen enough "Animal Attack" commercials to have a healthy fear of the damages inflicted by menacing bears.  But this bear seemed more domesticated and playful than the nasty images in my mind.  This bear sighting was the highlight of our trip.

The next day, we awoke before daylight and jumped onto the crowded shuttle that carried runners to the start.  In a typical Claudia/Becky/Sarah race fashion, we arrived at the start with minutes to spare.  When the race started, we joined 2,000 other runners along a course that ascended 500 feet for 13.1 miles.

What the course lacked in dramatic inclines, it made up for in rolling hills.  We raced along Tennessee country roads where charming cabins, bubbling rivers, and friendly locals formed our backdrop.  I had a hard time concentrating on important racing things, like pacing and breathing, because the beautiful scenery demanded all my attention.

The last mile, the sun broke through the trees and the course grew steeper.  The beating sun and hills made the finishing line look more appealing.  When I crossed the finishing line, a relief washed over my body and a gratefulness for experiencing something both so beautiful and wonderful simultaneously.

Our legs had little time to rest from the race before we were working them again. This time, we were exploring the numerous Smoky Mountain trails and gazing across gorgeous mountain vistas.  As much as I wanted to go back and sit on a rocking chair, these views and this park drew me deeper into the woods and along the mountains.

This weekend in the Smoky Mountains was active.  But really, that's the best way to experience something that begs to be explored.

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