ON THE TRAIL: Mile 21-40 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
You are standing at the aid station at Big Bend Road where the gravel and dirt backcountry road meets the two-lane Highway 1036 in Leeco, Kentucky. It is mid- to late-morning, and you’ve just covered 20 miles of incredibly rugged up and down terrain through Red River Gorge. It was hard but insanely beautiful. But something hits you. You realize you’ve been in the shade of the forest all morning.
Now, standing at the open intersection of two roads, you feel the stinging heat of the June Kentucky sun. What lies ahead is a long 10-mile stretch of exposed backcountry road and trail. It’s not going to get any cooler from here. You look to your crew and to the volunteers for encouragement. This is your first thought of not making it all the way. You stand at the edge of the road and steel yourself for what is ahead. It’s time to press onward.
Here the Sheltowee Trace turns right onto Highway 1036, but our race course will go left in order to take advantage of some unpaved back roads while the Trace follows the Highway for several miles. We will meet back up with the Sheltowee Trace later. We run along the should of the highway for roughly one-third of a mile before reaching Fixer-Leeco Road which is on our right.
We turn hard right onto Fixer-Leeco Road, a rough gravel and dirt road that makes up part of the famous Daniel Boone Backcountry Byway. The road suddenly drops! We descend a hard, straight downhill that plummets over 200’ very quickly. It’s a chance to go fast, but the gravel is rough, the ground beneath is uneven, and the sun is high in the sky as a constant reminder that this isn’t going to be easy.
The road continues to roll downward here. The road descends to meet up with Big Sinking Creek below. We’ve left the calm serenity of Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge State Park and entered into the rugged backcountry of eastern Kentucky.
The gravel and dirt road meets up with the creekbed as we are beginning to curse this road. The uncertain gravel. The debilitating sun that is now high in the sky at midday. The creek actually flows directly down the road and we welcome the cool relief on our battered feet as we get to run through some of the water. That could lead to some nasty blisters later, but we’ll deal with that when it happens.
We’ve made a hard right to stay on the race course as we start to see little side paths go off in various directions. The road continues its overall downhill flow. Some of the more narrow sections actually provide some tree cover but only for a moment. We stop and take the opportunity to rehydrate, reapply sunscreen, and regain our resolve. Some of us are cursing ourselves for not bringing sunglasses!
We are still on the road. Dirt. Gravel. Sometimes a nice stream to cross. Some of us may actually lie down and soak ourselves in the cool running water. Whatever it takes to keep moving forward. The ridges rise to right and left as we start to see signs of what life has been like in this part of the state. Old residences some occupied and some not. Oil fields dot the hillside. We even see some old cemeteries and wonder what life was like for those hard individuals who helped to make Kentucky what it is.
We are starting to realize that all these little rolling uphills along this road are starting to add up. As we pass Cave Fork Road on our left we ascend yet another of these hills that look like nothing on the map but are absolute hell now. It is only 50 feet up the hill but it feels like a mile. We roll up and down and in and out of the blessed shade before hearing the cheering and commotion of the Bald Rock Aid Station. One more little climb to get up there. They better have a chair and some shade!
We leave Bald Rock as the road forks to the right and left. We stay right and follow more of the gravel and dirt road as it eventually crosses Big Sinking Creek again. We are still deep in a valley but this section begins to offer more and more tree cover.
We continue along the banks of Big Sinking Creek as it flows beneath us. There are more oil wells here. More cemeteries. This land is old and its people are resilient. What have these hills seen? What did these people have to go through to make it here so many generations ago? It is here that we realize the War Hammer isn’t just a trail race. It is an exploration of Kentucky’s rugged country in a way very few ever see it.
The road has begun to give way to dirt and almost looks like a trail again. We keep left as the trail/road joins back up with the Sheltowee Trace which we see coming in from our right. Suddenly we are climbing! The terrain leans hard upward on this 400’ climb that lasts a half mile. We haven’t had a significant climb in several miles, and in some ways this is welcome opportunity to slow down and recuperate in the shade of the trees.
We crest the hill and drop briefly to run along the ridge. More beautiful ridgeline running now as the hillside drops off steeply to right and left. Another quick uphill followed by another swift downhill. The forest begins to open up again. Gravel appears again and suddenly pavement as we come through several residences onto what is known as New Virginia Ridge Road.
New Virginia Ridge Road comes to a “T” at Highway 52 and we make a right turn here following the course markings and the little white turtles painted on the asphalt. The turtles tell us we are on the Sheltowee Trace. We have roughly a mile of pavement running now as the Sheltowee Trace follows Highway 52 and eventually Highway 399. We are careful to avoid traffic as we stroll along the shoulder. We just ran a 50K!
The War Hammer 100 race course leaves the Sheltowee Trace again as it peels off the left as we run along 399. The pavement is hot in the afternoon sun, so we welcome the soft trail. A trail! Singletrack, shaded trail! It has been so long since we were running a proper trail we burst into the green forest as we enter Lago Linda, a beautiful lakeside hideaway in Lee County, Kentucky with cabins and camping areas for visitors to the Red River Gorge. We descend the hill and get an amazing view of the lake below before rising up to meet our crew at the Lago Linda Aid Station!
We leave Lago Linda onto old trails that have recently been revived for use by runners like us and other visitors. The trail goes down. Down. Down! It is a steep and tricky descent that reminds of some of those early morning miles through Red River Gorge proper. It is green and the ground is soft. For those runners in the front of the pack it is early afternoon and humidity is thick and muggy. For many of us it is late in the afternoon and we are starting to feel the heat subside. We reach the bottom and see the slow flowing Contrary Creek at the bottom.
The trail south of Lago Linda rolls along over ever-changing terrain. Rocky little uphills challenge our aching legs as the humid air seems to sink and lay stagnant at the bottom of the valley. It is beautifully green here as we run through fern covered flats and rolling creekside stretches. The War Hammer 100 has not shortage of opportunities to take a dip and cool off!
We emerge from the deeper gorge as as Spruce Fork joins Contrary Creek and we get to run under some really cool rock formations along the bank of the creek.
Here we begin the ascent out of the valley from Contrary Creek up to White Ash Road. This is a long and arduous climb. Over 450 feet of tricky terrain as the sounds of the creek fade further and further below us. The sounds of trickling water begin to fade into the sound of passing traffic along the highway above us. We will be running on it soon. The climb continues up and up along White Ash Road - another backcountry gravel road - before emptying onto Highway 399. Hey, weren’t we already on 399 several hours ago?!
We now begin the longest stretch of pavement on the entire race as we turn left and run along Highway 399. We are back on the Sheltowee Trace which we left to detour through Lago Linda. The Trace follows the road here because much of the surrounding countryside is private property.
We continue along the road. This is a great time to evaluate the race and make changes to your plans. If you are a competitive runner, this is a great chance to pick up the pace and really gain or make up some ground. If you struggled on that climb out of Lago Linda this is the perfect opportunity to take it easy and just let the miles tick away while your legs recover. We round the corner in the hot, hot afternoon/evening sun into the town of Heidelberg, Kentucky. Heidelberg is a tiny Bluegrass town stationed along the banks of the Kentucky River. We will follow the course markings and the turtles on the pavement to Heidelberg Park and another opportunity to rest and get aid at the aid station.
We continue out of from Heidelberg Park onto 399 south. More road. More pavement. More wishing it could be over. More looking forward to what lies ahead. The road winds through wooded country.
The path turns onto Crestmont Road, and and we can feel that we are heading back into the woods. The road is still paved, but it hasn’t been taken care of like the highway was. It’s rugged. Potholes dot the way. The road snakes through the woods along the creek as the trees begin to close in and offer more of our beloved shade. This section of the course has been a grind. We’ve seen friends call it quits. We’ve maybe even had a few heat related hallucinations of our own. But it is evening now. We can feel the heat subsiding. The sun in making its descent toward the horizon, and we can begin to hear people talking and laughing ahead. It is way off in the distance, but we know that we are about to see crew very soon.