On The Trail: Mile 81-100(ish) of the War Hammer 100
A Mile-by-Mile Guide To The War Hammer 100 Mile Endurance Run
Our “On The Trail” blog series is an in-depth look at Next Opportunity race courses from the perspective of a runner. “On The Trail” takes you step-by-step (ok, not REALLY) along the race course to give you a detailed idea of what to expect from the race course on race day. Mileage in relation to landmarks described in this post is approximate.
War Hammer 100 Mile Endurance Run
The road - if it can indeed be called a road by now - bends to the right and crosses Raccoon Creek where our aid station is. At this point, the volunteers instruct us to follow the course markings straight ahead into the bush. It is a thick mess of briars, weeds, and mud that has been gently curated into what could loosely be called a trail. We squeeze through it for about 20 feet until we emerge from the other side and see the trail ascending a slight rise through a rickety old gate that stands open. We hike up the rise and struggle to find footing. The ground is soft everyone and in places simply a mess. The spring rains teamed up with the surrounding creeks to create a rocky, muddy trail that we now follow through the darkness. We follow the creek which is now slightly below us on our right.
The trail drops and crosses a small creek that feeds the large Horse Lick Creek that we are now following. The trail seems to split in five different directions. We look around through over the puddles and mud to find a course marking. We see it to the left and above us. It’s a steep incline but short. We can see the top, so we hike upward slipping and grabbing the trunks of small saplings to keep from sliding back down. At the top, the trail continues to roll through a wet and rock forest that smells of pine. Horse Lick Creek trickles along nearby. We can hear it in the still night as we wind around the bend.
We continue to roll along. Our shoes are wet. Our socks are soaked. Our feet feel heavy from the mud and water. There is no fast running here. It is that slow trudge of desperation that only those who have come so far but still feel so far away can know. It is simply pressing forward. Left foot. Right foot. To the next tree. Over the next rise. The forest opens to reveal a large grassy field ahead of us as a new breeze cools the night air. A weed-ridden gravel road appears to our right and rolls off into the dark distance. The headlamps catch the reflective course markings to our left. We wonder briefly if we wouldn’t almost prefer to follow the road instead of this boggy trail.
If we crossed the creek we would be in Rockcastle County - our seventh county of the day race. The county line vaguely follows Horse Lick Creek on the other side, but thankfully we are not crossing it. Yet. We will. We know it. We’ve seen the Race Director’s videos of that creek crossing. We will get there. For now, we roll onward. Gently upward. Gently downward. Ever attempting to find solid footing on the ground that has been chewed up and spit out by horses, ATVs, hikers, and mother nature. Stepping around another big water puddle our feet slip, and we wind up ankle deep in the stagnant muck. We pull up our foot, and the sucking mud makes a disgusting sound that breaks the night’s stillness.
There is no major climbing here. No significant downhill. We just keep plugging along through the darkness stepping on fist-sized rocks that keep tempting our ankles to roll over and end our race any moment. Suddenly an abundance of trail markings starts to appear on our right indicating that a turn is coming ahead. The creek has disappeared winding off into the woods to the north of us. The trail splits. To the left, it rises again toward the ridge. To the right, it gently falls along a wide and compact grassy track. We follow it to the right and soon another sharp left. The ground is firmer here and smoother. We like it. We welcome it.
Then the trail disappears. It simply drops away in front of us. There is a turtle insignia on a tree to the right that we lean on as we take in the scene ahead of us. The trail drops and descends extremely steeply right in front of our feet. At the bottom is Horse Lick Creek. We raise the headlamps slightly to try to see the other side of the creek. We can barely see it, but the light is reflecting off the ribbons hanging on the other side. This is where we cross.
Sliding down the muck we descend to the creek. The mud is thick at the bottom. Our shoes sink into it as the creek water rushes over our ankles. We step into the creek and simply put one foot in front of the other until we reach the other side. Nearing the center of the creek the water deepens. On most of us, it is perhaps knee or thigh deep. For shorter runners, the water might reach our hips or even higher. We slip as we ascend the bank praying to Odin that we don’t have to put our hands into the wet, stinking earth.
On the other side, we ascend sharply and turn left onto another wide double track trail. There are signs of vehicular traffic here. They must be pretty stout vehicles to make it back this far. The ground is uneven dirt and mud. We dance around as much as we can; trying to avoid the mud and puddles. We laugh at the effort we are putting into avoiding the puddles given that we are already soaked and covered in mud. Horse Lick Creek is no on our left, and we have crossed into Rockcastle County. How much of Kentucky have we seen today? We’ve seen sweeping landscapes; deep gorges; and dense, green forests. We’ve also seen poverty-stricken communities, roads and bridges in ill repair, and public lands that have seen a lot of use. We’ve seen it all. The dirt gives way to gravel. Those of us running through here on Sunday morning can marvel at the deep green and blue colors of the creek to our left as it winds south next to us eventually emptying into White Oak Creek then into the larger Rockcastle River. Over the next rise, we see the White Oak Branch aid station.
Leaving the aid station we follow the gravel White Oak Branch Road through the Kentucky foothills. Some of us are here in the dark of night. Some of us are here on Sunday feeling the morning heat hit us for the second time during this race. The road rises to meet Kentucky Highway 89. Taking a right onto the Highway we will not see any more trails until the next aid station. We must buckle down here and prepare ourselves mentally and physically for several miles of road running along the shoulder of this Kentucky back road.
What can we say here? It’s road running. We are on the shoulder of the highway. Some of us changed shoes and socks back at the White Oak Branch aid stations. For those runners, this section is a chance to regain some rhythm. We can even gain some ground here if we are really racing. For others, we use this time to appreciate the smoothness and evenness of the asphalt after the previous miles of wet mud. We can roll along here and let the mind wander again. The woods rise up to our right toward a high ridge. On our left small fields are separated by barbed wire fences. There are chickens in one of the fields. The miles tick past. One much the other as we follow the flags in the ground along the shoulder.
We awaken from our daydream as the road comes to a T. The two roads meet, and our course markings follow Highway 490 to the left. We see the Big Turtle painted onto the rusty green steel supports of the bridge we now cross. The wide Rockcastle River rushes beneath us. We continue down the road following the turtles, the course flagging, and the sound of laughter ahead. We’ve reached the Margaret Hollow aid station.
The aid station is set off to the side of the highway on our right as we approach. Past the aid station is Parker Branch. Another. Creek. Crossing. It is not deep. We hop from rock to rock and eventually step into the cool stream that flows through this green valley. The water trickles over our shoes and soaks our socks. A sign here indicates that this is the halfway point of the 323-mile long Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. In the morning light, it is striking how green the forest is here. The tree cover completely shades the path as the Sheltowee begins a climb beneath large rock outcrops. A few switchbacks take us near the ridgeline. The trail is dotted with boulders and thick trees of oak, poplar, and maple.
Running along the hillside we think how amazing it is that a simple change in the running surface can so greatly impact our emotions and thought processes. The smells of mud, asphalt, and car exhaust have been replaced by the smells of wet leaves covered in the morning dew, fresh spring wildflowers, and moss-covered boulders that give life to a rich ecosystem. The trail widens and narrows as it slowly descends the other side of the ridge. We are still in a deep green forest. The sunlight flickers above as shards of light find their way to our face as we prance through the woods.
At the bottom, we cross a small stream that feeds the high grass nearby. The trees are smaller here. They are just babies unable to reach the sunlight from this deep in the forest. We stop here to soak our headwear in the stream. For some of us, it is nearing lunchtime on Sunday, and the midday heat has turned the morning dew into an invisible, thick fog of humidity in this deep valley. The run through here is pleasant. In and out of the creek it winds along narrow single track and ascends the next hill toward the next ridge. After a brief flat section of trail, we are back on a road. The trail markings lead to the left. As we make the turn we see the road rise sharply ahead. It is a high, steep hill. We’ll walk it.
At the top of the hill, the road turns to gravel and passes by a couple of homes shaded by the large trees that line the road. More barking dogs alert the Kentucky hills of our presence. We leave them behind as the road takes us downward and eventually turns to dirt as we follow the fork to the right.
We are back on dirt now. Technically this is Wildcat Road, but we don’t see how any car could drive here. ATVs maybe. It’s a wide dirt and rock path highlighted by smooth spots of exposed sandstone. The trail rises ahead. Spring flowers are in bloom along the side of the path. Hiking up to the top of the next ridge some of us are pestered by an annoying horsefly that won’t leave us alone. We power hike and swat at it. Maybe we even curse aloud as it bites the back of our shoulder. We can’t wait to get to the top so we can run and leave it behind. We crest the hill and reach the ridge - our highest elevation since leaving S-Tree so many hours ago.
The weather leading up to race day impacts this section of trail drastically. A warm spring rain will leave this pathway soft and even slick as our shoes hit the smooth sandstone. In dry conditions the eroded sandstone mixed the loose dirt creates a fine dust. Either way, it is soft and welcome. In the night it is quiet. We can see lights in the valley below off to our right. The lights belong to residents of Livingston, Kentucky. The trail curves around the natural contour of the ridge as we reach the Camp Wildcat Memorial.
The Battle of Camp Wildcat was fought here in 1861. 16 soldiers died here. Another 60 were classified as wounded or missing after the smoke settled. It’s a strange feeling as we refill our water bottles at the aid station and down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. What should we feel? We are only a few miles from completing the race, so we want to feel elation. At the same time, we are struck by the solemnity of this place.
Once our supplies are restocked and we have resolved to take on this final stretch of the course, we leave Camp Wildcat and begin the descent from Wildcat Mountain which rises above our right shoulder.
The crushed gravel road winds through the forest as it descends to the valley below. We smile at the gray leaves that have been covered by the dust of the road thanks to passing cars going to and from Wildcat Mountain.
We follow the gravel downward. Downward. Eventually, we start to see more and more signs of civilization as the valley floor approaches.
Mile 100. No finish line in site. As is typical with trail running this race is not exactly the number of miles it is billed to be. Gravel meets pavement as we turn right onto Hazel Patch Road. An old cemetery marks the other side of the narrow road. There are no lines on the road which gives away how much traffic it sees on a regular basis. We get a brief rest as we hike up a short rise and cross the railroad tracks that lead to the field by Hazel Patch Creek.
After crossing the tracks the road descends steeply again for a short 20 yards. That ache in our knees screams at us as we pound down the slope. The local communities host a reenactment of the Battle of Camp Wildcat in the field here. A split rail fence surrounds the level grassy clearing. We look back over our shoulder to see Wildcat Mountain rise behind us thinking again of what took place here so many years ago when two opposing battalions clashed for control of a key road through the heart of Kentucky. More houses lie ahead, but we will go no further on this road. The course markings turn us sharply next to a white house and point up a steep rise into the woods along an unmarked trail.
Leaving the road we follow the trail upward. It is steep! Someone has cut down trees to block the way in order to keep unauthorized ATV traffic off the Park.
The Park! It hits us like a ton of bricks. We’ve made it! We are now on the Wildcat Adventures Off Road Park. This is where we finish. We just have to get to the top of this ungodly climb. As is the case with so many ATV trails the climb is insanely steep. No switchbacks here.
We reach the top, and the trail winds upward ever so slightly. We try running in between the large ruts in the trail. That’s not comfortable. We try running in the ruts themselves. That is too slippery. Does it even matter anymore? We just keep moving forward.
Then we hear the music. It rises and rises as we crest the hill and start to see the multi-colored pennant flagging marking our way to the finish line. It is the same multi-colored flagging we saw at the starting line. Ahead the black mesh fencing with the green Next Opportunity Events logo creates the most welcome sight of the weekend. The finish line! We did it. Every emotion hit us at once as we enter the finish line chute. Spectators, crews, volunteers, and race staff are clapping. Some are cheering your name. We try to fight back the urge to cry, laugh, and collapse at once. The high black flags that mark the finish line rise high above our heads. The race directors are there to hand out buckles and high fives as we cross the line.
We collapse. It’s done. We did it.