Monday, September 8, 2014

Hare or Tortoise: Local Boy Represents!

I saw the sign next to the trail:

Mile 12
The Rugged Red 
Half Marathon

Ever fiber of my being wanted to begin my kick.  I was on a downhill with a short creek crossing and insignificant climb out, then a gradual downhill, a short bit on the road and into Gladie Creek historic site to the finish.  I wanted to kick.  Actually there were some fibers of my being that didn’t want to kick.  My energy was gone.  My engine was boiling over and running hot; ready to ‘splode.

I was off my goal pace somewhat.  Two hours and thirty minutes was what I wanted.  When it was obvious I couldn’t make two forty-five I decided there was no way I was going to be over three hours.  But then I had nothing left to push with.  I could keep running but only just.

I passed a slower runner who was standing beside the trail.  He then fell in right behind me and hung right off my heels.  My brain didn’t have the energy to deal with someone passing so I pulled off to the side.  He stopped in the trail.

“You can go on; I’ll follow you in.”

Exasperated I took off again.  But then I realized I didn’t have to worry about him passing me.  And when I came out of the woods at the Bison Way trailhead he was nowhere to be seen.  I ran across the finish line alone.  At 2:57:22.

I started in the first wave right on the dot at 8:00 am.  It was almost anti-climactic.  The bus ride up to the start from Stanton was long and stiffening.  We only had twenty minutes to loosen up before the start.  Three hundred people cued up for five porta-johns and hoped to void their bladders before their wave was released upon the sloppy trails of the Red River Gorge.  I did the math.  My bladder had no hope.

It’s good knowing the area.  My warm up involved heading a few hundred yards down the unofficial Half Moon trail to a sizable tree, then a slow jog back doing high-steps, skips, and high kicks.  I stretched some in the starting corral, and then we lined up.  Before I had time to let my gut churn we were off.

I was in the first wave.  Some fast people were in the first wave.  Some fast people took off and I never saw them again.  I sorted to the back soon enough.  Near the end of the initial two miles on gravel Chimney Top Road I was sorted into the second wave.  I worried then that I was going to have a bad race.  Had I carb-loaded too much?  Was my breakfast still weighing too heavy in my belly?

My rigid plan went out the window as I ignored my first fueling cue when I turned onto Rough Trail.   Nothing was settled in my gut.  I grabbed a cup from the water station and sucked it dry.  Then the trail part of the race (the entire remainder except a tenth of a mile or so on the road at the end) began.  I stayed ahead of the second wavers who almost overtook me before the water station.  The first big descent comes right away and I quickly caught up with some of the faster second wave Ruggedeers before the initial steep part was behind us.

The field was bunched up until we reached Cuss Joe Hill.  The fastest went on, running up the steep terrain, while the mere mortals like me who had been fortunate enough to fall into the early waves struggled with the ridiculously steep lower section of the Koomer Ridge Trail climb.

A steady effort seemed prudent so early in the day.  It was already warm, I was already lagging, and the field had proved to be formidable enough to dash any hopes I had for accidental glory.  When I reached the easier ridge section of Koomer I had finally sorted into a gap in the field.  I was all alone as I raced toward the Buck Trail junction at my 11:00/mi pace. 

My chest was heaving as I turned onto the familiar descent.  Two runners had caught up with me, but when I dropped off the ridge the gap between us opened far enough that I didn’t even hear them behind me.  Finally I my legs had loosened up, I was hitting my stride, and it seemed like there was some hope for me to finish strong.

An old acquaintance from my climbing days was the course marshal where Buck crosses Chimney Top Creek.  She gave me a high five and said I was doing great.  That actually put a spring in my step as I leapt deer-like from the cool waters of the stream onto the short flat section before the second gnarly climb of the day to gain Pinch Em Tight Ridge.

Runners caught me low on the Buck-U segment.  Two guys passed me wearing the exact same shoes as me: the Brooks Cascadias in black and red.  By the end of the race I had seen enough of those shoes to think they must have been the official shoe of the Rugged Red.  Or should have been anyway.

Powell County school colors

While Buck-U is technically easier than the Koomer Ridge climb it feels more brutal as there is little recovery between the two.  And then after the crux low section was behind us the long gradual ridge climb to the Sheltowee junction was a relief and a strength-sapping deceiver.  I knew this though, and only ran hard enough to slowly recover and slowly increase the speed.

When I heard Tomahawk in the distance I knew the next turn was close.  He was marshalling at Buck Trail and Sheltowee/Rough. 

“Hey Tom-MEH!” I called before he could see me.  I heard his cowbell clanging and smiled to myself.  Then I heard other voices calling and more hands clapping.  Tom had a lot of company at his station.  The Rugged Red SAR team (a combination of Powell, Wolfe, and Menifee SAR teams) was there as well. 

The local SAR teams really stepped it up for the event.  They did an awesome job and were out in force.  I chatted Friday night with the Powell County folks at the expo and Mandy and I have been discussing the possibility of getting involved with them.  After all my years of recreating and guiding in the Gorge it might be time I started to give back a little more.  My knowledge of the area would be a huge asset to the team as well.

Anyway, I moved through just shy of a 12:00/mi pace, but I had a solid three miles of significantly easier trail ahead of me.  Others knew it too.  Along Pinch Em Tight Ridge I began getting passed by more and more people.  They all looked fast.  I knew they must have been from later waves. 

I carved out a niche for myself just before the descent.  I didn’t want to have to pass or be passed by anyone coming down from Pinch Em Tight.  I knew I could make good time but it’s also a tight and tricky section.  It went well.  Near the bottom I caught up with a young lady and we actually chatted for a bit through the lower limestone band and out to the second crossing of Chimney Top Creek.  That’s where the long flats begin and I took advantage of her hesitation at the second crossing, took the lead, and opened my throttle wide open.

Here’s where I wish Strava had been accurate for me on Saturday: it showed I ran mile seven at a 3:59/mi pace.  I assure you, as strong as I felt on that mile and a half section I did not run that fast.  I wish I knew what it really was, but it doesn’t matter.  I reached the swinging bridge at mile 8 feeling solid.

Climber Kipp caught up with me as I crossed the road.  Joe was there cheering people on and he saw me.  It wasn’t quite a Ken Chlouber moment, but it was close.  Give Joe a few years doing this and I’ll be he takes on more of that kind of persona.

Kipp and I stopped at the water station.  I was running low and wanted my hydration pack to carry me the final five miles so I needed that extra bit of fluid.  We dumped our cups and as we started up the trail Kipp said he was going to walk and then we could run after the first hill.  I was down with that up until the point when he took off running.  I’d found my limit for the day.

The humidity felt heavy on me as we gained that initial hundred feet or so.  It’s long and gradual before you get into a nice smooth section of contouring trail that seems to go on forever (FOR-ever).  That was the section Jeff and I ran the week before.  I’d crushed it that day.  On race day I felt sluggish and weak.  I had nothing to throw at the short hills.  I kept up with Kipp for a little while, even passed him while he slowed to eat and drink a little, but then he passed me followed quickly by a group of four, and then I lost him for good.

My energy ebbed and surged through that long section.  I made myself eat and drink.  I kept hoping to see mile 10 and mile 11.  Somehow I missed the 10 sign, but 11 was very welcome to see.  It meant the last big climb was just around the bend.  I held out hope that after the last climb along the ensuing mile and a half of descent I could kick hard.

I labored with a few other runners up the climb.  That’s when my head started radiating heat, or gamma rays, or flames, or something.  It was almost 11:00 am and the cold front that had been predicted to pass over us about that time had failed to make a showing.  The sun beat us down as we climbed out of the still air under the canopy to the more open ridgetops.  Even when I began the wicked steep descent after Indian Arch I didn’t feel much relief.  Once the trail leveled out around about 11.5 miles I had nothing to give.  I could only keep my feet moving in semblance of a race gait.

As we passed under the Frog’s Head overhang I dug a little deeper and found something.  I kicked it up a notch.  There was a young lady ahead of me that I just couldn’t catch, but I was determined not to lose sight of her either.  I chased her for a half mile and then she was gone.  When I turned on Bison Way, the final mile, I caught a glimpse of her down near the creek even as I heard footsteps coming behind me.  Keeping ahead of a runner behind I knew a passing was coming once I started the super-short climb out of the small drainage to the final contouring section of Bison.  I was right.

The short climb with its newly reconstructed steps took all of the life left in my legs and ground it away to nothing.  I felt light-headed.  After the first switchback I worried I would fall over the slope and back down on the trail below.  When I turned the second switchback the runner that had passed me started running.  I bore down on my wrung out sense of will and started running for the final push.  That’s when I passed the stalled runner and he fell in behind me.  That’s when I knew I had no energy left to kick with.  That’s just before I could hear the announcer over the PA and the finish line crowd cheering in finishing runners.

Bison Way was slop.  I took great care not to slip-n-slide.  I just wanted it to be over, to feel the weight of the medal around my neck, and to fall down in the grass at Gladie and die.

Across the stone bridge, past Mike Kelso (don’t taze me bro!), down through the grass, and up a loose gravel path with a short hill.

“C’mon, you can do it!” spectators were calling.  I walked the hill until I could see the finish a few dozen yards hence.  Boone stood grinning off to my left.  I saw the finish clock:  2:56.

“Ah!” I gasped.  And I ran.

I saw Mandy with the camera.  I saw her point it at the finish as I passed her while attempting to grin.  That might have been a mistake.  I think the grin took the last of my energy.  I basically walked across the line as the clock ran past 2:57:22.  I was done.

It took everything I had to accept the cold washcloth from a volunteer and walk out of the way of the finish.  People were calling out.  I saw Kipp off to the side soaking wet from his efforts and I managed to let my grin go as I saw him hoping it would look like I had acknowledged his presence.  He nodded at me and waved, banana pausing on its way to his mouth.  My mind retched.  My body had no juice to retch with.

I was past the chute and didn’t see Mandy.  Boone had kept up with me so I sort of hugged him as he bumped into me.  Then there was Lily, and Mandy, and we were all together again.  I sat down hard on the cool ground by a tree despite Mandy’s protests.

“I have to,” I answered her admonishment not to stop moving.

She kept bringing the washcloth back to me with ice-cold water.  And for an eternity that’s all my mind could process despite questions, comments, and suggestions from the peanut gallery.  The external world and my internal dialogue was a cacophonous white noise that cancelled out everything I was feeling.  I knew I should stretch.  I wanted to get up.  I wanted to watch others come across the line.  I wanted to care about the world around me but I could not muster the energy to care about anything other than the presence or absence of that cold washcloth.

“Are you cooling down?” a voice asked.

Somewhere near the center of the spinning of my mind I answered: “I think I want to stand up.”

I didn’t know if I would cramp, if my legs would buckle, or if I would just topple over as soon as I got upright.  Thankfully I was next to a substantial tree and used it to remain perpendicular to the earth until my mind was able to take over that task.

We managed to wander over to talk with Kipp, Dan, and Al—all local climbers—and only then did I started to feel like I was in the same time zone with normal again.

Come to find out Al and his wife are regular climbers and they got their start with a climbing guide that shares my name many years ago.  They’d hired him through Red River Outdoors.  Wait a minute!  I desperately wanted to remember Al’s face, but what I eventually did remember is Tomahawk calling out to Al’s wife Doris as she climbed that day so long ago: “You’re getting new technique with every move!”

Tomahawk was a fixture in our guiding business.  We had a lot of good times, and it was a pleasant surprise—almost overwhelmingly so—to reconnect with Al and Doris after so long and find out that we had a hand in getting them started as climbers.  They’ve been involved in the local community and seem to have done a lot of good for it.  That was a priceless memory.

I was 75th overall out of 261 finishers and 380 registrants.  I was the 60th male finisher.  In my age group (40-44) was 6th; 4th if you don't count the two forty-somethings who placed in the masters division.  

There’s more to tell about the inaugural Rugged Red Trail Half Marathon, but I’ll save it for next time.  Suffice it to say I am incredibly satisfied with my effort.  Mandy keeps telling me how proud she is of me for all of my hard work and how well I did.  We are sold on the benefit of this race to our community.


  1. Awesome job! Huge weekend man!

  2. Nicely done! I recognize that feeling at mile 11; I had it too!

  3. Thanks for all the posts on training for and the race itself - looks like quite a challenge and a lot of fun. I've got this one on my race calendar for next year. Now I've just got to practice a few times on the course. I'm new to trail running this year but finished the Cloudsplitter 25K and the Conquor the Cove trail marathon - enjoyed both quite a bit. I'm looking forward to this run next year. Thanks again / See you on Strava. Ed in Richmond,KY

    1. You're welcome Ed! Thanks for commenting!

      I wanted to do the Cloudsplitter (would have done the 25k) but was sick leading up to it and had already decided I'd done enough events for 2014.

    2. Chris,
      I hiked part of the Rugged Red yesterday - looped around Rough and Buck trails. Looks like some good climbs in there but also some flats. I fairly certain I'd like to run this race next year. I was wondering if the course has been mapped out online like in RideGPS/MapMyRun or some other program that allows you to zoom in on sections. I can't seem to find one if it's out there. If not, I was wondering if you have your GPS data from the run you could send me a tcx file so I could load the profile into a mapping program to look at the distances/climbs etc. Thanks. I'm hoping to try the course this winter sometime.

    3. My strava track was wonky: but a lot of it was right on.

      These three runs have more accurate tracks and cover the entire course:

    4. There are three big climbs on the course. There are four big descents. The first two are the worst climbs but number three comes at you after mile 11. The first and last big descents are the worst.

      The start is on Chimney Top Road at the unofficial Half Moon parking area, then you run south on the road to Rough Trail. The finish is from Bison Way across the stone bridge on KY 715 and into the Gladie Creek site to a finish below the cabin.

  4. Thanks for the info. Looks like parking at the Half Moon and running a loop would be a good spot to try a training run. The first link you sent is basically the hike we did the other day - starting up on Chimney Top Road and looping the Rough Trail (too bad I forgot my GPS). Thanks again for the info. I've only done a coup[le official trail runs but hope to run a couple more next year. Going to try the Renfro Rock n' Run Half next weekend (road race).

    1. You're welcome Ed!

      Just so you know, you can't do a proper loop from Chimney Top Road. you'd have to do a lollipop and return via Rough Trail. But I did what I called the "Rugged Red Simulator" for a few training runs where I started at RT parking lot and ran the course all the way to the swinging bridge and then returned via the Sheltowee Trace to Rough Trail and back to the RT Chimney Top parking lot where I started. That was about nine miles and was a fair replication of the total climbs at their respective distances. It IS easier than the course as you do more climbing on the actual race after the bridge, but for training runs it was pretty darn close without being the exact race course.