Race Report: Big Turtle 50 Miler by Jesse Chula
Intense Heat & a Brutal 16 Mile Stretch Make This 50-Miler a Must Run Kentucky Ultra
The inaugural Big Turtle 50-Miler and Marathon took place in Morehead, KY on a deceptively warm and overcast last Saturday of April 2017. It was, and remains, the hottest day of the year to date. An eerily quiet group of runners lined up on the lawn of the Laughlin Health Building on the campus of Morehead State University for a 7:00 AM start. A slight drizzle dissipated just as the horn sounded and runners were off for the day. Runners of all abilities, backgrounds, beliefs, skill sets, and experiences - one of the things I’ve always loved about running ultras. So many different stories and diversity on display. Everyone making the start line after so much adversity, and setting out to conquer the same goal on the same day, in the same way; get to the finish line as fast or efficient as you can. And maybe try to learn something about yourself on the way.
BT50, as I’m affectionately calling it, is an out and back course that runs on a combination of beautiful single track surrounded by lush Kentucky forest, a short section of gravel and dirt service road, some tough climbs, one of the jankiest swinging bridges you’ll ever care to step foot on, and a dense, compact section of creek running and crossings. The race begins with a steep ascent known as “heart attack hill” which gets runners quickly acquainted with the Sheltowee Trace. After the first initial climb, the course follows ‘rolling’ single track until the section of aforementioned roads then back to the peace of the Sheltowee trails.
BT50 was my first attempt at the 50-mile distance. I’ve had success with a handful of 50K’s, a distance I love to race and compete in, and a failed 100K attempt - just last October 2016 at a Kentucky race I greatly love and respect (and have unfinished business with). BT50, however, is a deceptively difficult course. At least it was on the day. BT50 has a modest but challenging 7,000-8,000ft elevation gain (who can trust GPS data anyway?), and a mental beast of a 16 mile stretch with one aid station - runners have crew access at mile 17-ish, then continue on to the northern terminus 25 mile mark, check in-out, fuel up, and turn around back to the Elk Lick Rd aid station, mile 33-ish. This stretch, for most, came during the lunch-midday hours when the heat and humidity had started to peek through the forest and be known. The look of desperation and despair on some faces at the northern terminus aid station, as temperatures reached 88°F-90°F, was only offset by the phenomenal kindness and consideration of the volunteers present to help runners out all day. In fact, I can’t remember experiencing such helpful and attentive people at a race in what ended up being a challenging day for me personally.
For a number of hours and miles on the way back, I and a few brave runners found ourselves reduced to a powerful hike - trudging, talking, sharing stories, and grasping at anything to engage in that would take our minds off the task at hand. Those hours provided me the opportunity to push past my own threshold, as seeing my crew again at the Elk Lick Rd. aid station, mile 33-ish, was about to provide me the perfect chance to drop from the race. However, I put some music on and continued to fight the mental battles, sucked down some soup and coke, and off I went again with my sights not yet set on the finish line, but simply the next aid station 3-4 miles away. By putting my focus on the smaller sections of the course, I was better able to manage my pace and race effort. After some 13 hours, some life-changing tomato soup at mile 40, and just as day turned into dark, I finally crossed the finish line back from whence I came, the lawn of the Laughlin Health Building. Because of my mid-race management, I was able to run and finish the last 10 or so miles incredibly strong, all things considered. I even passed a number of runners in the last 2 hours. Not that I even cared, we were all brothers and sisters that day.
BT50 is poised to be an awesome trail and ultrarunning event in Kentucky for years to come. It has so much going for it and so little working against it. It’s a challenging race that’s easy to access with good facilities at the start/finish, plenty of parking, passionate race direction, beautiful trails and evenly spaced and well-stocked aid stations.