I woke up surprised it was still dark. It WAS 5:15 so I am not sure why I would think it would be bright and sunny. At around 5:45 I headed out to Sheetz for a bagel sandwich and then I traveled north. I made it to Curwensville Dam at 7am, much faster than I thought. Getting close to the dam, I was a bit startled to look to my left and see the lake far below me. The lake is in a canyon! Then I see painted arrows crossing the road. “We are running this high above the lake?!”
Since I got there early I had plenty of time to stretch, get ready and scope out the competitors. My first surprise came when I found out that they had a guide chart saying that this year the short course, which I was doing, was 11 miles. I planned on doing 9. Two miles can be a big difference.
This year the course has been changed. Since I never did this race before, it means little. Also instead of two loops for the long course, the trail splits between mile seven and eight before meeting again at mile 9.
We gathered at the start and had the race briefing. The race director pointed to the two course designers and said “these are the two who designed the course. Don’t hate them.” They both added that a good part of the course has changed and is tougher than last year. Then came the three count and -boom- we are off!
The first two miles were no sweat. It was either dirt roads or grassy meadows. In fact, this part was changed and another mile of nondescript grassy lanes were added to separate the slower runners with the faster paced runners. I was in the back of the first pack. Then came the single track and the first climb. The climb wasn’t so bad. There were two sections that everyone had to to walk but it wasn’t too steep. I realized the key to this race is to be just a little stronger than the person in front of you. On the uphill, if you can run just a few yards more up the hill that the other guy, you can slowly close the gap.
The climbing part was about a half mile. The downhill must be ahead, right? Yes, but we kept running and running and running, and we are not at the bottom. How can this be? Turns out that the downhill was two and a half miles long.
I am running downhill except for a steep but short climb somewhere between 3.5 and 4.75 miles and I am already tired. My legs are darting all over the place. My right hip already is sore. This course is something I have never experienced. It was as if they blazed this trail with a pick axe the night before. It was narrow, slippery and soft. In fact, most of this course is on “trails” that were made just for the event. Pressing on there were a few steeper downhill sections and I was able to be a little bit braver than the guy in front of me. I caught up with two racers then one of the racers I passed yells at me that I dropped on of my water bottles. I should have kept going but I decided to wait for the guy to make it down the section behind me. In doing so I lost about 20 seconds and one place.
At 4.75 to 5.1 miles, I was able to open the throttle as we enter a meadow and a dirt road and I realize I am finally near the bottom of the hill and near the lake and I pass the aid station at mile 5. I and my legs feel better already. Then I saw a sign which read “Jungle Trail”. It was a mile of super thick vegetation, grape vines, overhangs, upended roots, river debris and peppered with ravines 20 feet deep which we were expected to cross. Here, the race director for the Hyner and Rothrock Challenges got his foot caught in a root and ended hanging upside over a ravine. One runner I was following came to the end of this section and had to stop, awestruck at what he just went through. “Wow! That was incredible!”
“I wish I had a machete!” I replied.
After that it was a mile of relentless up and downs and then an uphill through a field, here I overtook another runner. Back in the woods, the course took on another surprise. There really isn’t a trail. It seems like the course designer just walked through the woods and marked a tree every few dozen yards. In fact, I got lost for about a minute, taking a left instead of a hard right. I had to wait for the runner behind me to catch up and make the correct turn before I knew where to go. I had to push it a little hard to catch up and overtake him again. Then I had to go through the Scramble, about a hundred or so yards up an ankle-twisting rocky drainage ditch. After the Scramble, came The Traverse.
The Traverse may be less than a mile but it was the most dangerous part of the course. Below you about fifty to hundred feet is the lake below. Above you is a steep face. In front of you is a trail, about six inches wide mixed in with roots, gullies and rocks. Footing is always questionable and I realize I was all alone. Somehow I made it quickly through.
The course continued its relentless. After through all that came The Ascension. The Ascension is a climb out of the canyon. Remember the painted arrows on the road I mentioned at the beginning? Here, the course climbs 140 feet in 0.05 miles at the onset. From the bottom to the road, it is 200 feet of climb in 0.25 miles. After a little bit more climbing I see another runner ahead about 125 yards. It must be a couple more miles or so to the finish, mostly downhill I thought and I checked to see how much I had in the gas tank. Let’s race!
This proved harder than I thought. Not only was he fast, but the trail had more surprises. We went up dirt mounds, down sinkholes, over slick footbridges and down gullies and other obstacles that was put in between me and the other guy. Meantime, the guy in front of me had caught up with a runner. After about a mile and and half chase, I made my pass and overtook both of them. As I bolted ahead, and the trail stopped its descent and I kept running with no end in sight, I began to worry if I made my move too soon. Then the sky opened, I thought I must be getting close to the end but I hear footsteps behind me getting closer and in the last 500 yards I dug deep. I had more in the tank than he did.
I crossed the finish line. “How did you like the course”, someone asked.
“I don’t know if I should thank the course designer, or punch him in the face.” I did my decompression and cool down and found out that I made 7th overall. Time 2hrs 2m and 20 seconds. No age divisions but I would have been first in my age group between 30-39.
It turned out to be a fantastic race and far more challenging that I thought. What an amazing course?!