A Bigger Turtle Than We Though (Part 2 of 2)

A Big Turtle 50 Miler Blog (Part 2 of 2)

Read Part 1 of this blog series HERE.

In part 1 of this two-part blog series I laid out some of the challenges we all faced in preparing for the 2017 Big Turtle 50 Miler trail races, and why it ended up being a much tougher ordeal than most of us anticipated.  I shared a little about how our individual perspectives can shape our own expectations of what a race will be like and the fallacies involved in putting too much stock in our own personal opinions of a race.

So we get it by now:  we marketed the race as something easy, and it sure as hell WASN’T!

Now I would like to throw a number at you:  60.  That is approximately the percentage of runners that finished the 2017 Big Turtle 50 Miler races (marathon and 50 miler included).  60% of runners made it to the finish line.  So 40% of runners found themselves getting a ride home that day with no finisher award and no finish time.  I’ve DNF’d races before so I know that heartbreak and an exploration of what it is like to drop out of a race is definitely worthwhile.  We will save that for another post, however.  

60%.  Let’s look at the factors that made race day so hard and what led to that 60% finish rate.


We have to start there, don’t we?  Had the weather been any different we would almost certainly have seen a much higher finish rate on race day.  Brandy and I got a good laugh every time someone asked us what we thought the weather would be like.  We have lived in Kentucky for 17 years.  We have lived in this region of the country our entire lives.  So, we knew that the plain fact regarding Kentucky weather in April is this:  who the $%# knows?  I’ve seen snow in April in my time in Kentucky.  I’ve seen sweltering heat.  So who knows?

Runners attempt to cool off at the Terminus aid station before heading back up the hill.

Well, we got the latter, didn’t we?  However, I don’t think that the fact that the temperatures topped out in the low 90s was the main factor.  I think the main factor was the “freak” nature of that temperature spike.  The weather leading up to race day had been relatively mild.  70s.  Low 80s maybe.  I was out on the trail marking the course on Thursday before the race, and I wore jeans all day.  I don’t recall feeling uncomfortable once.  

Let’s jump to after the race.  By the end of the week after the race Morehead, Kentucky was experiencing temperature highs in the upper 60s.  The upper 60s!  Only days after the race!

So it is safe to say that Momma Nature conspired to give the Big Turtle runners one hell of a rude awakening by sending a crazy high-temperature spike that seemed to hit this part of the state just as people were dealing with the toughest part of the course:  that dreaded 8 mile stretch of trail between the Elk Lick Aid Station and the Northern Terminus.  That leads us to my number 2 reason for that low finish rate.

Death Valley On A Ridge

For those not familiar with the Big Turtle race course here is a taste.  50-mile runners approach the Elk Lick Aid Station at mile 17(ish).  Here runners are up on the ridge and must take a short but steep descent along a forest road to get to the Elk Lick Aid Station which is at the bottom of the valley.  After climbing back up to the trail on the ridge runners then continue north on the Sheltowee Trace toward the northern terminus of that 323-mile long trail.  It is eight miles to the terminus.  Eight miles to the next aid station.  Eight miles to the turnaround point of the entire race.  That means that this stretch is 16 miles with only one aid station.

If there was one question we got asked more than any other question after the race it was this:  Can you put an extra aid station between Elk Lick and Northern Terminus.


Runners head back up the grueling hill from the Elk Lick Aid Station.  Photo provided by Shannon Bryan.

As usual, we don’t say “no” to these requests just to be a-holes.  There are reasons.  In this case, there is simply no access to that section of the trail by any means other than by foot.  So there is no possible way to put an aid station there.  

Now couple this long and brutal stretch with the timing of the race and the weather we experienced on race day.  Elk Lick is at mile 17.  Runners then go to mile 25 and turnaround.  Then they come back to Elk Lick at mile 33.  Since the race starts at 7:00 in the morning that means that the majority of runners are running this stretch between 10am and 5pm.  The hottest part of the day.

16 miles.  1 aid station.  The hottest part of an unseasonably hot day.  If this were a cookbook, I just gave you the recipe for a high dropout rate!

Elk Lick was a carnage zone.  Throughout the afternoon the carnage was being radioed into the finish line of runners dropping out left and right.  Not only was it tough on the runners, but our race crews could barely keep up with the unexpected water consumption.  We had race staff running between the store and aid stations all afternoon trying to keep them supplied with water.  

Lessons were learned all around by the runners, crews, and race management.  

5 Miles From Hell

Some of the technical terrain early and late in the race!

Lastly, we all underestimated those first and last 5 miles!  Plain.  Simple.  For those unfamiliar with the Sheltowee Trace and the Big Turtle race course, the first and last miles of the race are absolutely hard.  Just hard!  There is no other way to put it.  The race begins with a long, steep ascent to the ridge before going up and down a dragon’s spine of short climbs and descents over what is the most technical terrain of the course.

The terrain is peppered with small rocks that make the footing uncertain.  There are some little, wet spots that can make it quite slippery especially after a good rain.  And let’s not forget to mention The Over-Under Log!

Runners trying to negotiate The Over-Under Log.  Photo by Noah Moore.

How best to describe The Over-Under Log?  Let’s start practically.  The Over-Under Log is a fallen tree a few miles into the course.  The log has fallen across the trail on a steep hillside.  Racers at the Big Turtle first encounter The Over-Under Log on the way down this hillside.  For most adult runners on the way down the log is maybe thigh or waist high.  Easy enough to climb over it for most of us.  Still, those that are more vertically challenged find it easier to climb under it.  On the way back, however, The Over-Under Log takes on a new identity.

Imagine yourself in a 50-mile race.  You are at mile 47.  Exhausted.  Your legs gave up hours ago, and you’ve been pushing on through sheer strength of will to this point.  You are now in the hardest, most technically difficult part of the course and you know you are going to finish.  There is no other aid station between you and the finish line, so the race is all about one thing:  Keep.  Moving.  Forward.  Now you begin a short but very steep incline that makes you curse the day the Race Directors were brought into this world.  Halfway up you encounter The Over-Under Log.  You had forgotten about it.  You hopped over it on the way down this hill eight hours ago, but it had faded into memory until now.  Now, on the way up the hill, the log is at chest level.  Do you go under?  It’s a tight squeeze.  Do you go over?  Your legs barely have the strength to keep you standing let alone climb over a huge fallen tree.  You just want to sit down and weep.  

Chula chooses the "Over" approach.

Chula chooses the "Over" approach.

That is The Over-Under Log.

When the legs are fresh early in the morning the first 5 miles of the course don’t seem like the biggest of deals.  Later in the evening, however, as your legs are shot and you are dehydrated and maybe even hallucinating just a bit, this section of the course absolutely soul crushing.  Veterans of the race will have a huge advantage here in 2018!

Does it get easier?

Runners marching up the hill early in the race.  Photo by Amy McDowell.

This post was not intended to shed any new light on the race.  Racers who took on the Big Turtle in 2017 didn’t receive any new information from this article.  They know full well the obstacles they encountered that day and what made it so hard.  But I believe it is important to review those obstacles both as a runner and as a race organizer to assess the reasons for particular race outcomes.  Why did so many people drop out?  What made that 60 % able to push to the finish?  There is not one single answer to any of these questions, but by exploring the events as they transpired let’s us get a better grasp of what we need to do to turn those same obstacles into opportunities in the future.  See what I did there?

The Big Turtle bites back on April 21st.  See ya there!


Michael Whisman1 Comment