Falls Lake just outside Durham, North Carolina is surrounded by rolling terrain and dirt trails covered in thick shade from tall pine trees. This is where you’ll find the Mountain-to-Sea trail cutting though and where the MST 100 races are held in mid-March. This year, I ran the 50-mile distance on the course and ended up with a solid long run as part of gearing up for June’s 100-miler.
The Mountain to Sea Trail
If you aren’t familiar with it, the Mountain to Sea trail traverses the state of North Carolina from the western mountains to the eastern coastal region. The trail runs through many state parks and natural areas and is home to excellent trail running destinations.
Several races are held on or near the MST as it cuts through the many diverse regions of North Carolina. The Roaring Gap 50k that I ran in February utilizes a small portion as the trail skirts near Stone Mountain.
The MST 100 Race Course
The MST 100 races take place entirely on the Mountain-to-Sea trail just east of Durham, NC, home to Duke University. The races begin and end at a picnic shelter in the Rolling View area of the Lake Falls recreation area. Each distance is an out-and-back run along single track with almost the entire course heavily shaded by tall, thick pines.
The trail is well-maintained but not overly groomed with plenty of roots and rocks to keep an eye on. There are never really any long-flat stretches, nor are there any distinct up or downhill climbs. Most of the course is rolling and winding among the trees along the banks of Falls Lake. Watch out for water crossings and be prepared for muddy conditions at times of the year – something I should have better planned for.
The MST 100- and 50-Mile Races
The 50-mile and 100-mile distances are double out-and-backs with the first leg headed east and the second segment going west from the start/finish area.
We started at 6 a.m. and ran in the dark for the first hour of the race. It’s a good thing I keep a spare headlamp in my gear bag because I had never even thought of it being dark – we just had the time change, which pushed sunrise an hour later.
Early sections of the trail are heavily covered in pine needles and in many places, I had to pause and find the trail again because it was so faint.
By mile 5, we sorted ourselves out in pacing and I passed two runners that would be the last people I’d end up seeing for 3 miles. This is where we found the largest water crossing of the day. And by water crossing, I mean a good ¼ mile lake crossing with water nearly up to my knees before we found an unsteady board crossing in the middle of the lake.
I’m of the opinion that a good water crossing makes for an excellent trail run, but this is by far the largest I’ve encountered.
As we resumed on the winding trails, I finally caught up with another runner at mile 8 and only saw the next runner at mile 12 as I neared the turnaround of the first section of the course at mile 14. At this point, I was in 7th place and only a few miles behind the leaders.
I made quick work of the turn by filling one flask with some water. As I headed out for the 14 miles back to the start/finish area, I found several runners in the mile behind me on the course. I had to remind myself that this was a long run as part of my training, but it’s difficult to fight that itch to compete when you find yourself in the top 10 of a race.
The trails flew by as I was enjoying the twists and turns of the dirt with frequent lake views. By mile 20, I was beginning to feel the day’s miles and reminded myself to settle in and enjoy the day. The second time crossing the lake was a little more enjoyable now that I knew what to expect for water level and the sun had warmed things up a bit. But I wondered how my feet were going to hand being this wet.
Second Half of MST 50-mile
At mile 28, we reached the start/finish area, which also served as an aid station before heading out for the second out-and-back of the course. It’s at this point where I realized the opportunity to change into fresh, dry shoes would’ve existed, had I planned for so much water on the course. But we were just getting started with the mud.
There were still a few runners in the mile or so behind me, so I headed out for the second lap as soon as I was ready. I met them on the road out of the aid station before hitting the dirt single track once again.
The second out-and-back of the course was mostly rolling pines but a much more heavily traveled section of the trail. There were several low sections of the trail that were waterlogged and muddy and that made for a tough time picking a solid place for footing.
By mile 35, my energy levels had been drained and I hit a wall. I was super happy to finally find the aid station to grab a bite to eat along with some Coke. I didn’t know if it was the wet feet or just bad nutrition planning, but I was exhausted.
I pushed forward and the trail came back to the lake’s edge to make some cool views on the run. As we wound through the trees near an old homestead and more pines, I was thankful for the tree cover and shade as the sun came out.
The next aid station and turn around for this out-and-back section was at mile 40. I was super happy to find a chair and a PB&J. I refueled with some more Coke and realized the blistering on my feet was not going to be pleasant when and if I finally took off my shoes.
The final section of MST 50
The final stretch to the finish is always a relief in a race. My feet were sore and wet, but I was motivated to get back to the truck and finish the day as strong as I possibly could.
One of the positive aspects of an out-and-back course is being able to see other people on the course and exchanging a few positive words as you pass. I had the chance to see several 100-milers on their way out – they’d go through the mile 40 aid station to turn around much farther down the trail.
It was this section of the course where I was passed by a few others. I couldn’t muster up the effort to run for very long stretches at a time and I knew my feet were blistered from being wet and in the mud for so long. Maybe I should pack extra socks with me next time? I’m not sure how much difference dry socks would make in wet shoes.
When I made my way through the mid-point aid station on this section of the course, I was happily met with a beer and some more food! The extra calories are always welcome on a day like this.
As I made my way through the final few miles of the course, I could see there were a few people closing in, and that made for good motivation to keep pressing on. There’s nothing quite like running for 50 miles, only to be passed in the final mile.
I was so happy to finally find the finish on this day. It was a relief to sit down and stop trudging through muddy trails and water crossings. Chalk it up to a lesson learned and that I should always have a spare pair of dry socks and shoes in my gear bag, whether or not I plan on using them.
Despite the struggles of water and wet feet all day, I managed to finish in 9th place overall with a time of 11:34:26 (Strava), good enough for the top 25% of finishers.
My feet were absolutely blistered and it was not pretty. The worst I’ve ever had. It was bad. And the worst part was losing many of the callouses on my toes. Maybe that’s TMI that only other trail and ultrarunners will understand, but I worked so hard for those! It’s a process of getting some of that protection back on my feet.
The MST 100 was a cool course and I can definitely see myself returning for the 100-mile distance in the future. Next time I’ll be a little more prepared for the wet feet.
A note to future runners: be prepared for a lack of information or communication about racecourse distances and aid station support. The RD has some work to do on preparing volunteers with course information, such as knowing the distances to the next station. And definitely don’t expect much detail in the race morning briefing. Ask your questions ahead of time. They have some work to do on those details, but with some work, the race day experience can definitely improve.