I have learned one thing in the handful of trail races that I have participated in.......if you don't relish the thought of throwing caution into the wind and flinging yourself downhill on wet rocks, dry rocks, leaf covered rocks, and the combination of rocks and squishy mud; then you will not have much fun.
The night before the Rothrock Challenge my wife asked me if I was nervous. I "raced' bicycles for two years at the category 4 level. These races are chock full of type "A" personalities who want to be fast, who think they are fast, but who usually cause carnage while trying to ride faster than their skill level allows. The sound of carbon and aluminum sliding sickeningly on the sweltering blacktop makes me nervous. The silence before a body catapults over the handlebars and thuds into the pavement makes me nervous. The groans of a racer writhing in pain on the tarmac make me nervous. Trail running is a joy compared to the hair-raising category 4 criterium bike race.
I arrived at Tussey Mountain around 7am and did the normal pre-race stuff: As i made my way to the porta-johns I saw Bryon Powell of www.irunfar.com emerge from a red Ford. If Bryon is on the prowl it can only mean that some legit runners were ready to test their legs on the rocks of central PA.
Naturally the start/finish area was full of people milling about in an attempt to burn nervous energy and trying to determine where to line up. I bumped into Ian, who hasn't finished a few minutes ahead of me at the two previous "trail dogs" races. He was doing what I was doing......walking in circles and trying to find a good spot at the start line without appearing overeager. I noticed Bryon talking to a La Sportiva runner and thought, "here's my chance......I can say hi without looking like a gushing emo teen at a Saves the Day concert". I casually asked which direction the race headed and then added "I like the blog by the way". That was followed by some gravel kicking and looking at the ground. Luckily the race director hopped on the microphone and let us know that some of the race course was underwater due to the 3 inches of rain from the night. Bring on the mud!
I casually lined up in the second row, not wanting to displace the big dogs. As the race began and we headed out the gravel drive and onto the paved road. After about half of a mile, as Ian passed me, I commented "is this a road race?" He assured me that the start of the trail was just around the bend. I entered the woods in about 15th position. My plan was to hike the first hill. I wanted to avoid a late race blow-out. As soon as I entered the woods it seem that everyone behind me turned on the afterburners. Apparently the first hill wasn't as steep as anticipated and was runnable. I was passed on the right and on the left. The first female roared by. I could only hope she would fade later. She didn't. A handful of guys who I didn't think should be passing me, scampered past. The La Sportiva chic galloped by breathing in staccato blasts. I base my finish time goal off of the top female. So far it has worked. Today that seemed unlikely. Finally, when a large, shirtless man lumbered past; I gave up on my plan of starting slow and joined the crowd intent in thrashing their legs in the first mile.
I pulled back a few runners as the trail kicked towards the top and readied my legs for the first descent. The Kettle trail was steep and technical. A guy bit the rocks to my left. The La Sportiva racer was digging her heels in, clearly uncomfortable with the terrain. I was ready to let my legs fly. I bounced by her like a goat (not so much like a speedgoat that for sure) and quickly disappeared down the trail.
The stretch between mile 2.25-5.0 was pretty much flat and rocky. A flat trail after a three inch downpour can mean only one thing: water runoff. And lots of it. The trail became more stream than trail. Crossing a creek during a run is a novelty. On a hot day the water feels great. Running through 3-6" inches of water is fun for about :10 seconds.
At some point we hit a nice rocky field and 6 of us clumped together. It was back and forth for a bit until we hit a fast descent and then things started to spread out. As I huffed up to the Sand Spring Trail out of aid station two I pulled my course elevation profile out of my pocket and noticed that Charcoal Flats was around the corner and consisted of three miles of mostly flat terrain. I hate the flats. I mentally prepared and swilled down my second Carb Boom.
Charcoal Flats was sopping wet. The rhododendrons crowded the trail their waxy leaves slicing at my arms. Water flowed freely up, over, down and across the trail. I felt like I was scampering around in a scene from the Lord of The Rings; certain a hairy hobbit was watching in amusement.The mud gripped my shoes and threatened to pull them off. At first I was getting annoyed with my pace but tried to be positive: I'm slow on the flats, (did I mention I hate them?) but everyone is slow when slogging through the muck, so perhaps the sodden landscape was to my advantage.
The descent to Aid 3 was insane. Beautiful hemlocks towered overhead and the trail beneath them was cushy smooth. Smooth, that is, if you could get your legs up over the giant boulders scattered about the descent. When I saw a purple rope on the trail I thought it was to keep me to the left. Perhaps they were protecting a lichen that only lives in this patch of forest? As I almost head planted into a rock bigger than my car I realized the rope was to keep me from tumbling arse-over-teakettle into the aid station. Clearly my blood sugar needed a boost.
As I left Aid 3 I had lost contact with the two runners who I had kept with 25 yards for a good two miles. The speed hike up to Bald Knob was fun until my hip flexors started to twinge. With 5.5 miles to go this was clearly a bad sign. I looked back down the trail and thought I saw a white shirt making its way towards me. Blah. There is nothing worse than getting passed by fresh legs and watching hopelessly as they disappear down the trail. I downed another gel and put my head down and soldiered on.
As I headed towards Aid 4 I was thinking keep it steady and smooth as it's almost all downhill to the finish. A spectator informed me that I was in 11th place. Determined to keep my position I tried to stay steady and focused. Just before Aid 4 I caught site of 2 runners bobbing and weaving in the woods. One kept peaking back giving me hope that he was struggling more than I. As I arrived at the final aid station one of the runners was cramping. I took a quick drink and fell in behind runner number 9 and was happy to see runner 8 just up the trail.
Unfortunately my legs were officially blown-out. I kept them in site until we hit the final descent. But as the trail dropped towards the finish both my calves began cramped simultaneously. I started to walk and the cramps relaxed. But when I ran, whammo, my calves balled up into knots. I drained another gel with the hopes of tricking my brain and tried to shuffle down the trail sideways. Luckily, no one was within view as i'm sure I looked even more ridiculous than I felt. Thankfully the gradient changed and the cramps abated. Whew! The thought of doing the final 2.5 miles with balls of pain on every step was incomprehensible.
As I descended cautiously, carefully picking my way through the rocks running on tenderhooks I could hear shouts. At first I thought we were near the finish. Then I realized the runner ahead was cursing his bockety ankle. Whatever it takes to get one down the hill! On the last stretch of road I passed the 9th place runner only to have him blow by me on the slight decline to the finish. As his hat flew off his head I slowed; not wanting to be the center of a cramping spectacle 10 feet short of the finish line.
After a quick clean up and free massage I took to the food tent. I kept it gluten free with 2 heaping plates of bbq pork and chicken, 2 banana smoothies, 3 pepsi's, and a bottle of water.
On the course I consumed 4 gels, three cups of gatorade, and most of my hand-held.
The course was a blast. The variety of challenges presented on the ascents/descents more than made up for the soggy, water inundated valleys. The Rothrock Trail Challenge is definitely a race to put on your schedule.