The rock climb of a lifetime

otaylor@thestate.comApril 19, 2013 

  • If you go Olympia Fest

    When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Green space at of Whaley Street and Olympia Avenue

    Tickets: Free

    Information: www.olympiafest.com

    Olympia Fest

    The festival, in its sixth year, features historic tours, arts and crafts, music and children’s activities. And, oh yeah, the Quarry Crusher Run, a race like no other.

    Tours of Olympia, including Vulcan Materials Co.’s quarry, will be narrated by guides who will share stories – some tales, too – about the mill area’s history. Tours of the historic Olympia and Granby Mills, which have been converted into apartments, will also be given. Quarry bus tours cost $5.

    The Restoration, Story Squad, Condor All Star Steel Pans and Dreher High School Jazz and West African Drum group, among others, will perform. Bring a lawn chair and hang out under a tree.

    The festival is alcohol free. Parking is available in the paved lot by the festival site; on Heyward Street and side streets; in the lot adjacent to Cornerstone Church at Heyward and Wayne streets; and in the Southside Baptist Church lot on Whaley Street.

    Quarry Crusher Run

    Space is still available. $30-$35; quarrycrusherrun.com

After we toasted our annual New Year’s Eve dinner of crab legs and potatoes, my friends and I went around the table sharing our greatest accomplishments of 2012.

One, a Bloomberg energy analyst, flew first class to the Republican National Convention to interview T. Boone Pickens, a wealthy financier, at a convention symposium. Another friend, a freelance photographer, witnessed the domesticity of the T.I. when the rapper paused a photo shoot to reprimand his children for not unloading groceries as he had instructed. The photographer also spent a late night at another rapper’s mansion hanging out in a room with, for some odd reason, floor to ceiling poles.

Besides starting yet another company, my entrepreneur friend who lives in California, now surfs almost every morning.

My accomplishment: Becoming a runner. More specifically, I completed the Quarry Crusher Run. The run was the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically. And, unlike many of the 171 runners who ran the inaugural race last April, I did it without stopping. But not without some help.

I didn’t know that I had registered for agonizing muscle pain (that persisted for days) and mental fatigue that almost compelled me, more than once, to quit. It was only the second road race of my life and, though exhilarated after crossing the finish line, I barely survived. When I get to the starting line for Saturday’s race, I’ll be ready to crush the Quarry Crusher Run.

The 3.72-mile run begins with a flexuous descent into the cavernous Vulcan Materials Co. quarry in Olympia. On either side of the road, there are picturesque granite and stone cliffs that look like snow-capped mountains in parts. Gray boulders line several stretches runners pass as gravel crunches under their sneakers like dry cereal.

My running partner last year, Elizabeth Wolfe, and I casually chatted, pointing out where foliage sprouted from the rock in places. There was time for a history lesson. Did you know that the quarry was started in 1880 and it processes an average of 10,000 tons of rock a day? We shared a laugh about an older gentleman who was skipping to the bottom. We skipped, too.

Once we reached the quarry floor and turned around to begin the ascent, it didn’t take long for the mood to negotiate a seriousness that required – no, demanded – silence. The 1.5 mile run out of the quarry is at a 10 percent grade.

Alex McDonald, president of the Columbia Running Club, told me he started the quarry run like it was a regular 5K, a race he enters on just about every Saturday morning of the year. McDonald, who blogs about running at tourdeblueshoes.com, realized the race was unique when the flat beginning quickly yielded to a downhill slope that took runners almost 400 feet below sea level. McDonald was more concerned about keeping his footing than maintaining his speed.

“My legs are taking a beating, like a couple of sledgehammers to my quads,” he wrote in the post. “After slowing down the pace a bit I feel a little better, and figure this may set up perfectly for me, since I’m good at powering up the hills and maybe the guys in front of me went out too fast. Completely delusional.”

The climb slowed McDonald and other veteran runners – to a walking pace.

“Bunch of dudes pulling 5 something pace now look like a pack of soccer moms in the mall,” wrote McDonald, who still finished in 28:12, good enough for 11th overall.

The winning time was 24:16 by Nate Bergeron of Charleston.

Merritt McHaffie, the executive director of the Five Points Association, ran the course for a promotional video. A runner who also bikes and swims consistently, McHaffie thought the run was going to be a typical workout.

“As a runner, there is never an option to stop and walk – at least not for me – but I almost had to stop on the very last hill,” she said. “That may not sound as dramatic as it was, but I never stop running. Coming that close was surreal.”

McHaffie, who twirled her shirt over her head when she was done, invoked soccer player Brandi Chastain’s celebration after her 1999 World Cup-winning penalty kick. McHaffie was one of the almost 300 runners who had signed up by Monday.

The last hill McHaffie referenced comes after a somewhat flat stretch before a hard bank emerges. It’s the reverse of the drop that caught McDonald by surprise. With the quarry run, what goes down must be contended with on the way up.

“That one was hard for me,” Keith Moree, a general manager at Delaney’s said. “But as soon as you got out of that, you hit the clearance back in and the motivation that I didn’t have to run uphill any more got me through it.”

Moree, who had recent knee surgery and won’t be running this weekend, placed 14th with a time of 29:44. He walked twice. His co-worker, Patrick Steiner, who finished 24th with a time of 32:02, also walked twice. But only for 100 feet, he said.

“Regardless of how bad your legs hurt, your thighs are going to be killing you, you’ve just got to keep pushing,” said Steiner, who is running Saturday. “You can’t stop. As you stop, you’re going to be like, ‘Ah, it feels so good to rest,’ that you’re not going to want to start going again.”

Steiner has competed in another grueling Midlands race, the USMC Ultimate Challenge Mud Run, which will be held for the 20th time on April 27. When asked to compare the two, he said the Quarry Run was more mentally exhaustive.

“You’re doing little quarter-mile sprints in between obstacles and as soon as you get on that obstacle, you’re using upper body so your legs are getting plenty of time to recover, so it’s really not a running issue,” Steiner said of the Mud Run. “With (the Quarry Run), once you hit that bottom, it’s all thighs.”

My thighs, my shins, my ankles. I felt like I was jogging in place. I noticed people walking, and the only reason I hadn’t already stopped was because I didn’t want to let my partner down. But I could no longer rebuff the advances of relief. Still jogging, I closed my eyes and my steps slowed even more as my arms began falling to my sides. I had decided to plop down on the ground, the road, the closest I could get to a couch.

But my serenity was disrupted.

“Grrrr, rrrrah, gorrr, rah,” Wolfe, who was strides ahead, barked as she turned to me.

Or something like that. It was inaudible, but it was the jolt I needed. Wolfe placed 59th overall, but first in the 30-34 age group, with a time of 35:48. I was 60th in 35:57.

I’ve been training for Saturday’s rematch for four months. I’ve been running with Erin Shaw, a former intern at The State who will graduate from the University of South Carolina in three weeks, regularly since last summer. But after the Christmas break, we began incorporating hills into our weekly training schedule. Once a week, we run time trials up Saluda Avenue. The routine: three times up the hill, with each successive time faster than the previous.

A colleague, Adam Beam, who won the 25-29 age group in 30:37 (16th overall), also trains on Saluda to simulate fatigue.

“Hill running isn’t just about training your body for the uphill strain; it’s about training your mind to know you can handle it,” said Shaw, the primary planner of our workouts. “The goal is that when we’re hurting during the Quarry Run – because we know it’s going to happen – we’ll be able to think of all the hills we ran to prepare and say, ‘OK, we can do this’.”

In recent weeks, Wolfe, the development coordinator of Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, and Heather Spires, director of retail recruitment for City Center Partnership, have joined us for the exercises I refer to as the Lauren Conrads, named for the former star of MTV’s reality show “The Hills.”

“Before we ran the hills the first time, I joked about hoping I could do it without puking. I did – but only just,” Spires, who like Shaw, will be making her first foray into the quarry, said. “It was actually worse than I imagined it would be. And since then, I’ve dreaded going every week, but each week it’s been a little easier to run, and I’ve been proud of myself for sticking with it.

“The best part of the training has been the people I’m running with. Without their encouragement, I would have gone into the quarry completely unprepared and on my own. Even though we’re running as individuals, now I sort of feel like I have a team.”

We’ll celebrate the accomplishment together.

Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.

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