A Big Turtle 50 Miler Blog

I’m not really sure what I expected from the Big Turtle 50 Miler.  Sure, we had specific goals for the event from a business perspective and a community perspective; but personally, I didn’t know what to expect from that race.  We initially began pursuit of the race in April of 2016.  All we knew at the time was that we wanted to do an ultra in Morehead.  Since launching the Hot Hot Hundred in 2015 the Morehead running community (and the community at large for that matter) had shown tremendous support for Next Opportunity and really made us feel like true community members.  With Morehead being one of Kentucky’s leading Trail Towns and having the Sheltowee Trace pass directly through the middle of town, we just wanted to bring a new trail race to the town.  

My first time out on the course was a gloomy day, but the spring flowers were starting to come out!

The reasons for structuring the Big Turtle 50 Miler as an out and back 50 miler with an added marathon distance are many.  Too many to list here.  In general, though, the state of Kentucky lacked a great 50 miler in this region; and this was the perfect opportunity to make one happen.  My personal expectations were pretty straight forward: this would be a simple out and back course with no turns, a few notable climbs, but nothing significant in comparison to some of the bigger mountain ultras we see around the country.  

Easy, right?  Easy to direct.  Easy to run.  

Now keep this in mind:  it was the spring of 2016 when we decided to pursue the Big Turtle 50 Miler.  We had only directed two events at that point with the inaugural events of the Rough Trail 50K and Hot Hot Hundred in 2015.  We were still pretty green as Race Directors!  What made us think we could pull off a 50 Miler?  Looking back it was pretty ambitious, but personally, I was convinced it was going to be “no big deal.”

Eagle Lake is so pretty!

I scouted the trail between the Sheltowee Trace northern terminus and the Eagle Lake trailhead on the Morehead State University campus over the course of that spring and early summer during my periodic stints in Kentucky for work (we were actually living in Virginia at the time).  I would come back to Lexington for three or four days at a time for work then stop in Morehead on my way back east to run some miles on the Trace.  It was a great trail!  A few nice climbs but not too bad.  Some very pretty valleys and creeks.  Numerous access points for crew members and emergency vehicles.  Some nice rolling forest roads where runners could really get into a rhythm.  Not to mention the absolutely perfect start and finish line location on MSU’s campus.  This would be a walk in the park.  I knew it.

Over the course of that summer we did our Race Director thing of getting permits and contracts for use of the various trail systems and properties private and public lined up, wheeling and dealing with potential sponsors, planning the finer points of the course, strategizing pacer and crew access, and on and on and on.  You basically need to know ALL of the race details before you can put it out there to the public.  As we got ready to launch the Big Turtle 50 Miler at long last in October of 2016 I made the conscious decision to bill the race as easy.  “A great intro 50 miler,” I told everyone.  I even called it “flat and fast” on the web site.  Flat and fast!  It has over 11,000’ of change in elevation!  What world was I living in that I thought this race could be called “flat”?

You can see where I’m going with most of this.  Of course, the race turned out to be a bigger challenge than any of us anticipated.  It was a bigger challenge for us at Next Opportunity to direct, plan, and manage than we expected.  It was a tougher challenge on race day than most runners expected.  I take responsibility for all of those expectations being out of whack.  In Part 2 of this blog I will get into the behind-the-scenes bits and pieces of what made the race planning and especially race weekend so challenging for us race organizers, but right now I want to address why I think the Big Turtle was harder for runners than anticipated and what I learned from finding that out.

Brandy and I believe that part of our jobs as Race Directors is to set appropriate expectations for runners.  As a competitive runner myself I don’t want to show up to a race not knowing what I’m getting into.  I do my own research, but I also like it when an RD let’s me know what I can expect on race weekend.  Brandy and I try very hard to be honest and forthright about what a runner can expect to encounter on race weekend from the course to the facilities to the overall operation of the event.  We don’t want anyone to be caught off guard.  

So why did we portray the Big Turtle 50 Miler as this walk-in-the-park introductory trail race when in fact it turned out to be a brutal sufferfest that caused 40% of runners to drop?

I should have known this was going to be tough after taking a rough spill down Heart Attack Hill!

To answer that I need to bring you back to the timeline and give you some insight into my life during that time.  Again, it was April of 2016 when we conceived of this race and began pursuing it.  Our family was living in Front Royal, Virginia at the time on a temporary work assignment from January 2016-July 2016.  Front Royal, for those not familiar with it, is a small little town in the Shenandoah Valley in northern Virginia at the northern tip of the Shenandoah National Park.  So for me as a runner, this was paradise.  Mountains!  Big mountains!  I was getting in some serious elevation training every time I walked out my door.  It was not uncommon for me to log a week with more than 10,000’ of climbing.  It was the perfect environment for me to train for the 72 mile Georgia Death Race which took place in mid-March of 2016.  

Are the dots starting to connect now?

So from April to October 2016, I had a frame of reference that was mostly made of extremely rugged mountain running with tons of elevation.  So when I got out on the Big Turtle course, it honestly did seem pretty tame to me.  That is what led me to create such foolish language as “flat and fast” and “great intro race”.  Now that I’ve been back home in Kentucky for a while now I have much greater respect for the Sheltowee Trace and the Big Turtle course overall because it truly is a tough, tough route to run out and back over those 25(ish) miles.

Ok, so calling it "flat and fast" was not fair.  We get it now!  Photo by Amy McDowell.

We learned an incredibly valuable lesson from that experience.  The Turtle ended up beating up on us nearly as much as it did those runners on that hot, humid April day.  What we learned is that our personal opinions of a course’s difficulty level is incredibly subjective and should not be used in describing it to you, our runners.  Words like steep, hard, easy, technical, and fast mean something unique to every individual.  If you had asked me in April of 2016 if a 500’ climb was a “big” climb I would have said no.  But for many of us (myself included these days) it sure as hell is!  What I think is hard may seem easy to other runners.  Your definition of technical may be very different than mine.  An ascent that one runner calls “steep” may be “gradual” in the eyes of other runners.  

These days we are much more careful with how we describe our events.  Sure we still throw around words like “brutal” and “grueling”, but that’s more in good fun than anything.  One thing we definitely do is make a concentrated effort to avoid making any of our races appear easy.  Any race is hard whether it is a road race, a trail race, a 5k, or an ultra.  It’s going to have at least some level of difficulty, so it’s just not fair for us as Race Directors to say a course is “fast”.  That puts too much pressure on you as a runner and sets inappropriate expectations.  

That’s what we learned from the Big Turtle planning experience.  We also learned that our Big Turtle is just a mean and hungry animal that likes to dine on trail runners.

Next week we’ll dig into race weekend and why the Big Turtle turned out to be tougher on race day than any of us thought.

Michael Whisman1 Comment