When Little River Regional Park manager Mike DiFabio referred to the staging of the 11th annual Little River Trail Runs as a “well-oiled machine,” he was referring to the proficiency of the Trailheads. The local off-road running group certainly is adept at coordinating the event at the northern Orange County park.
He could just as easily have been referring to the park’s forest. The previous day’s rains were sufficient to have well-oiled much of the course, turning the 10-mile and 7K courses from merely precipitous to downright precarious.
“Yeah, it was slick,” men’s 7K winner Coston Irons said. “I took one (tumble), and the bridges were slick. There was a place where there was a sharp turn on a bridge, and that was a little scary.”
Some found the trails more negotiable than others, however, for the trail runs on Jan. 16.
“The trails were better than I expected with the rain,” 10-mile overall winner Scott Spillman said. “There were some slick spots and there was some wet and ‘goopy’ stuff, but considering the rain we had, the course was pretty good.”
“I don’t think they had as much rain as they’d predicted,” Parks conservation technician Michelle Pesavento said.
Beginning their second decade, the Trailheads’ Little River Trail Runs follow the single track trails through the regional park’s forest and over gently rolling hills. The 400-acre park, straddling the northern border of Durham and Orange counties, boasts nearly 15 miles of trails, picnic areas, bathroom facilities, a campground and a playground.
Little River is one of two running events staged annually by the Trailheads, the other being the Philosopher’s Way Trail Runs through Carolina North Forest each spring. Through a common love of trail running, ultra-running, mountain biking, and other off-road adventure sports, the Trailheads celebrate nature, preservation and sensible stewardship of undeveloped areas.
Proceeds from the race benefit the park. During the race’s first 10 years, donations totaled $62,000, including a record-high $11,000 donation last year.
“These help with park improvements like playground benches,” DiFabio said. “The plan is to buy a Gator eventually.”
As importantly, the race and other activities have helped to increase visitor use.
“We were around 46,000 visitors this year,” DiFabio said, “which is the most we’ve had.”
The race itself has changed little, though organizers did add in a new feature this year.
“We had the orphan-sock match program where we matched socks,” said the Trailheads’ Cliff “Grub” Simpson, who joined Layna “Willow” Mosley as co-race director.
As such, runners brought clean, single running socks to the race. Runners could check the sock bins and search out a match to take home for free.
There was a notable contingent of runners from places as disparate as Alaska, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Colorado, the latter being the home state of Spillman, the 10-mile winner with a time of 1:03:49.6.
“I was here last year and just really enjoyed the race,” Spillman said.
Chapel Hill’s Daniel Peters (1:06:04.1) finished second, narrowly edging out Durham’s Luke Paulson (1:06:08.5). The men’s masters’ division winner for the second-straight year was Paul Francis of Chapel Hill (1:11:10).
Duke University’s Brooke Palus (1:22:56.6) of Philadelphia finished first among the women in the 10-mile race, with Miranda Wodarski (1:23:08.4) in second place, and Caroline Lowery (1:23:12.6) rounding out the top three spots.
Shannon Johnstone (1:24:56.7) returned from wins in 2014 and 2015 to capture the women’s 10-mile masters crown.
“I eased into the race. I started off pretty slowly,” said Palus, who was only seconds ahead of second-place finisher Wodarski but said she wasn’t conscious of the competition. “I just sort of ran my own race.”
Wodarski said a rough fall hampered her chances.
“I think I was in first until around mile eight,” she said. “That’s when I took a hard fall.”
In the men’s 7K (4.2 miles) , Costen Irons (24:53.7) beat out Seward, Alaska’s Erik Johnson (25:35.8), with Ben Levy (26:33.2) earning the bronze.
Conrad Hall (27:54.1) earned the 10M men’s masters division crown.
“I’d never run (this course), so it was like a video game to me. I didn’t know which way I was going to go,” Irons said, “But I really like single-track trails and throwing caution to the wind.”
In the women’s 7K, it was Marisa Ryan (27:45.6) winning, with Shauna Dool (29:54.1) in second and Allison Peters (30:07.5) also on the medal stand.
Hollis Oberlies (32:04) earned the female masters’ victory.
Though overall turnout (just more than 500 runners) was slightly lower than last year, Mosley said there was a new, surprising source of volunteerism.
“We’ve had more people than in the past who were not Trailheads but wanted to volunteer,” she said. “They just offered to be here: they wrote in to say that they’re not running the race but wanted to help out.”
One personality notably missing from Saturday’s event, however, was longtime friend to the local running community Mary Hamilton, who died last week.
“One thing about Mary is that, out on the trails, you’d always hear her before you saw her,” Trailhead founder Steve “Squonk” Hoge said of the ebullient Hamilton. “She’d always be talking with her friends.”
Having demonstrated her infectious love of trail running with the women’s running group named “the Trail Goddesses” and later with the co-ed group “Blazing Soles,” Mary had run in eight of the first 10 Little River events, espousing through fellowship a belief that running was a joy to be shared by all, and all who shared that joy with her will sorely miss her.
Next up, the Trailheads will be focusing on the Philosopher’s Way Trail Runs on May 14.
For more information on those races, visit www.trailheads.org.
Little River Winners
7K men: Costen Irons (24:53.7)
7K women: Marisa Ryan (27:45.6)
10M men: Scott Spillman (1:03:49.6)
10M women: Brooke Palus (1:22:56.6)