This Seems Like A Bad Idea
NOTE: This post is part two of our three part blog series about the creation of the Redbird Crest 100K. READ PART 1 HERE.
Before we even got home after our first visit to the Redbird Crest Trail we knew that we would be putting on a race down there in the future. We couldn’t NOT do it. Of course, all of the details would need to be worked out; and that first detail was to actually scout the trails. I’ve said many times before that I love maps. You can get a pretty detailed mental picture of what an area looks like by exploring print and online maps. Thanks to the internet you can even gather some pretty high quality photos from social media, message boards, and general image searches. All of that combined can almost make you think that you don’t even need to go to a place to know what it looks like.
I know the truth though. The truth is that no picture can accurately communicate what a forest feels like. No photo can truly portray the steepness of a hill or the feel of the dirt under your feet. No image can give you the smells, the sounds of the forest. I never launch a race without running the course first. It’s just a my rule. Running is how I experience nature. I love to move over the ground and through the trees quickly feeling the air against me. It’s freedom. It’s also one of the best ways to cover ground quickly. An even better way is on a mountain bike.
Now let me kind of give away the ending here: I HATE MOUNTAIN BIKING! Or is it mountain cycling? Mountain bikery?
I purchased a mountain bike earlier this year for this very purpose: to be able to scout and map trails more efficiently. I can cover more ground on wheels in a day than I can on foot, so it made sense for me to make that purchase. I despise the machine. It is a devilish contraption built to encumber and hinder the natural movement of humans through nature.
(My mountain biking (bikist?) friends are hating this post right now!)
I decided to take the bike down to Redbird to scout the trail. I knew from the maps and other literature that the main Redbird Crest Trail was approximately a 70-mile loop. That would definitely make for an epic race, but also an epic undertaking. There is also an enormous number of side and smaller trails that could give options for out-and-back or lollipop routes. I just needed to get out there to see the trail system for myself. This was probably going to take three to four trips with the bike.
I took the bike down early on a Saturday morning in early May. The weather was warm. The sun was out. If ATV riders were going to be out this was the perfect day. I would get the chance to see for myself if the rumors of ATV traffic were true or if Brandy and I had just made our previous trip on a weird off day. My plan was to start at the Peabody Trailhead. We had all but decided for certain at this point that Peabody would be our start finish location. This race was going to be either the whole 70 mile loop or some version of an out-and-back. My plan was ride from Peabody to the Sugar Creek Trailhead - a distance of 10 miles along the Redbird Crest Trail. I’d then take the roads back to my car which would probably give me roughly 16 miles on the bike (and a thousand blisters on my ass) for the day.
I took off slightly before 8:00 am. There was a mist coming off the ridges in the distance. The grass at the trailhead glittered as the dew reflected the rising sunlight. The Red Bird River made a soft ripple sound the carried throughout the valley. It was time to ride. UGH!
Riding this route meant that I was taking the Redbird Crest loop in the clockwise direction. The first mile is an easy little gravel double track road that follows the river before hanging a sharp left. That is the first time I was really awestruck. I took the left and looked up. I knew from the maps that there was a climb here that took the trail up to the ridgeline. This was not what I expected. I am used to running along the Sheltowee Trace, Cave Run Lake trails, and the Red River Gorge. I am used to trails that are built for hikers, that have switchbacks on the uphills, and gradual drainage angles. One mile into this trail it was clear that I was way the hell not in Kansas anymore.
It. Went. Straight. Up.
No switchbacks. Just up. The trail ascended at an alarmingly steep grade until disappearing into the green canopy above. One mile in, and I was already getting off the bike to push that sucker up a climb that would have been an overwhelming challenge on foot. Now I had to push this hunk of rubber and metal up with me. Awesome!
It wasn’t just the grade that threw me for a loop. It was the terrain as well. Rocks. Loose rocks of all sizes. Big ankle breakers and loose pebbles that made your feet slip and slide. One step there would be mud- the next step there would be dry sand. Then there were the big slabs of sandstone that were smooth but slick. I pushed on the bike. At times I even had to lift it up off the ground to get over some of the rock formations. “Why did I bring this bicycle again?”
Halfway up a baby bird that was learning to fly plopped down from the sky and landed right next to my foot. Its momma landed down the trail and started going nuts, breaking the forest’s silence with her frantic chirps. The little guy just couldn’t fly yet and found himself inches from a strange, giant, bald monkey on a rolling machine. I can imagine his terror now, but in the moment I thought it was so cool! I snapped a picture of the little feller before rolling on. Further down the trail I later heard momma bird quiet down, so I assumed all was well in bird world.
I made it to the top at long last. I had been on the trail for almost 40 minutes and had barely gone two miles. So much for covering ground quickly on the bike. Now at the top I was able to actually ride the bike along the trail as it rolled along the ridgeline. There were plenty of obstacles but nothing I couldn’t easily ride through, around, or over. My ass hurt. The views from the top were incredible. They weren’t the 360-degree panoramas or sweeping vistas we get from the whizz-bang trail porn videos from out west or further in the south. I didn’t get any of those “see for miles” type of views. It was more of a wonderful ability to look at the forest below. I was on the ridgeline still surrounded by trees myself, but I was able to see the forest floor fall off steeply to my right. I could see the forest grow out in the distance below. It was a lush green canopy on this spring Saturday.
Oh, about that ATV thing. I had not seen another human being yet.
I rode on, and the miles ticked by slower than I could have thought. Make no mistake: when I say the trail is “rolling” that means that there are still some extremely technical and challenging sections even if those sections are relatively brief in comparison to that monster first climb. Steep. Rocky. Roots. Sand. Mud. I had to push the bike up the climbs because they were too steep and technical to ride up. I had to (or rather chose to) push the bike down the descents because those were equally steep and treacherous, and I just didn’t believe in tempting the universe to smite me.
Until I did.
I was rolling down some sweeping downhill trail about 6 miles into my route. I had been out there for a couple hours. This section was mostly sandy and packed dirt. It would have made an incredibly fun hill to run down, and I desperately wanted to do that. Unfortunately, I had this machine I had to lug through the woods. So I stayed on the bike. The trail wasn’t very steep as it descended. It didn’t have sharp switchbacks either. Instead it just followed the terrain snaking around the contours of the hillside and down toward the valley. I picked up speed. Probably a bad idea for a mountain bike newbie like me, but I had spent so much time pushing that bike all morning I was desperate to move quickly through the woods.
The trail leveled out for something like 100 yards before making a sharp dip down again. This is where the universe decided it had seen enough of my shenanigans. I decided to roll on down the hill. Bad decision. As soon as I began the descent and picked up speed I saw the dirt turn into rock. It was a big slab of sandstone that dropped off sharply to a jagged section of roots intermingled with broken rock. Two things could have happened. I could have gone full X-Games and jumped it, landed perfectly, and ridden off in style to my destination. Or….reality could have happened.
I panicked. I saw the technical terrain rushing up toward me, and my instinctive reaction was just to tense my whole body. It was reactive, not conscious. I gritted my teeth, tightened every muscle in my body, and clenched my hands into fists like I was focusing my chi (comic book joke for my fellow nerds). The problem with all of this is that the fingers on my left hand were already on the front wheel brake. So when I tensed, I pulled hard on that brake handle completely locking up the front wheel.
If I had been wanting to move quickly through the forest, I was now getting my wish. Problem: I was no longer connected to the ground. We are land mammals. We are not accustomed to flying. Nor are we skilled in the craft of landing. I soared like a bird and landed like a brick. I’m not sure which body part hit the rocks, roots, sand, and dirt first. It was just one sudden hard stop. I didn’t roll. I didn’t slide. It was just a thud.
I laid on the ground for a little bit. I don’t know how long. Probably a matter of seconds. The pain was heating up in my shoulder then my wrist then my back then my knee. I made it to my feet after some notable hardship. The water bottle had flown out of my hydration pack, and the bike was up the hill behind. I was probably ten feet away from the bike! The rear brake handle was broken and the rear wheel was slightly bent. “This would never have happened if I was running,” I said out loud. Time to call it a day.
I had ridden (and pushed the bike) about 8 miles in roughly two and a half hours. I could see from the map on my phone that was very near to a road intersection. So nursed the bike along the trail until I made it to the road and made the five-mile ride back to my car at the Peabody Trailhead.
Oh, yeah. The ATV thing? Still, the closest interaction I had all day was with that little bird. Not another soul in sight all day!
What a day. I didn’t get to see as much of the trail as I wanted, but I had seen enough. It was definitely more technical and challenging than anything I had seen before in Kentucky. Rugged. That’s the word. That’s the only word. No other public trail in Kentucky that I have seen has terrain or grades like the Redbird Crest. Nothing is that challenging. I loathed the fact that I had to wrestle the mountain bike all day because it would have been one hell of a challenging run.
I cleaned up the blood on my leg, hands, and shoulder and took off out of town. Headed home for some recovery and to contemplate my dismal future as a mountain biker (cycler?). This wasn’t over. I needed to see more of Redbird. I needed to run it. This two-wheeled business is for the birds. I needed to get my feet dirty. I needed to experience it on the ground. I needed to see the rest of it. And I would.
To be continued…