On The Trail: Mile 41-60 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
It has been a long afternoon for most of us. The previous 20-mile stretch was a real grind over gravel roads thick with dust, wet creek bottom trails, and miles of running along the shoulder of a highway. We are nearly fed up at this point as we roll around the bend of Cressmont Road to see friends standing ahead! At the junction of Cressmont Road, Todds Road, and Hale’s Ridge Road we finally reach a new aid station and see our crew for the second time today. It’s time to sit down, take a breather, reassess our various race strategies, and come to grips with the fact that we’ve not yet reached the halfway mark.
Departing the aid station we continue to follow the Sheltowee Trace - Kentucky’s Long Trail - along Todd’s Road. We pass more residences - modest homes that sit behind worn mailboxes with the word “TODD” painted on the side. We wonder how long family’s named “Todd” have called this holler home? Our minds wander back to the rushing Kentucky River we crossed over miles ago and how it brought life to the region generations ago. Settlers in eastern Kentucky carved out their own homesteads here on the banks of the river using the numerous small creeks that fed it as their life source. Eventually, the road was named after them.
The gravel road snakes along through the crack worn in the earth by Sturgeon Creek that follows the road. Or, rather, the road follows it. Brandenburg Cemetery is up the hill to our right. Another cemetery with a sign saying “Smith Cemetery” is on the ridge above us to the left. There is rich history in these hills that never makes it into our textbooks. But the souls of those who settled here know they made Kentucky what it is today.
An abundance of trail markings brings us to our senses as the trail leaves the road and turns into the woods to our right. We have to follow Cooperas Cave Branch trying to fall as we navigate the slippery rocks. A dog barks from the porch of the house on the other side of the trees. He’s interested in us but quite used to seeing hikers come and go along this trail. The leaves are still thick as the trail follows the creek.
We go up and down the hillside as the ridges rise to our left and right. The creek slightly below us. Amazing rock formations and natural rock shelters jut out from the hillside above us and to our right. If the cut-offs allow we take a picture before moving on. We descend slightly and cross the creek. It’s an easy crossing. A little hop gets us over without getting wet. We haven’t quite reached the point of not caring anymore! The trail turns hard to the left and begins a quick ascent to the top. The climb is steep and extreme, but we welcome it after the miles of asphalt and gravel we’ve now left behind.
The trail continues the climb, and we are feeling the burn back in our quads. The leaf cover disguises the rocks and roots beneath. If we were going any faster this would be a great time for a face plant. As we gain the ridge the trail begins to widen. The forest calm here. Quiet. We can hear the leaves rustle below us as another runner begins their climb up from the creek. Although we are on the ridge, the trail continues its uphill trajectory. We have climbed 500’ since leaving the road.
The trail begins to open up to a wider double track layout. We see the signature puddles and ruts indicating that ATVs have been here, but not lately. This is good running. Our biggest obstacle is the puddle. Then the next puddle. We hope over or step around each one in turn following the white diamond markers on the trees showing us the Sheltowee turtle.
“Is that another road ahead? Oh please God no. Not another road!” Our fears are confirmed as we approach and see that we’ve reached yet another road. We can’t believe it. We slow down to curse under our breath. But wait. The course markings turn hard to the left and go back into the woods! We are NOT running on the road!
The lovely singletrack trail winds through the forest and begins to descend. It is descending rapidly. 100 feet. 200 feet. We reach the bottom on our tired legs and cross another creek. In truth, it is the same creek we crossed a few miles back. This one is a little tougher to get across but we manage without too much damage.
On the other side of the creek, we have to stop for a minute to find the trail. We look left and right looking for markings. There they are! And they go up. Slowly at first as we follow Cooperas Cave Branch upstream then increasing grade as we continue. We climb slowly as we leave the creek and sense that we are coming into civilization.
We’ve entered Owsley County - one of the poorest and most rugged counties in the Bluegrass State. A tough land for tough people. We won’t be here long as the Sheltowee quickly passes into Jackson County past the community of Arvel. We reach the top of the climb and see the aid station at Arvel. It is a modest affair along the side of Highway 1238, but the volunteers are energetic and they have everything we need. After replenishing our water, stuffing our face with some goodies, and maybe grabbing a nice sit-down we continue down the road. We’ve left the trail yet again.
Through the community of Arvel, we follow the shoulder of Highway 1238 for roughly one-half mile. It is a country road that rolls through these foothills where the Bluegrass meets the Appalachian Mountains. A mobile home sits on the hill to our right. A dog barks from the porch. Another dog barks from the home on the left. He trots down to the side of the road to investigate but decides he’s not overly interested in runners. The road here is a smooth downhill that is a great time to recover from those last couple of climbs. We see markings ahead point us to the left as we leave the road and rejoin the trail. Our brief stay in Owsley County comes to a close.
After a short climb, the trail plummets down to yet another creek crossing. We run along the hillside with the creek below us for a while before crossing and again looking for the trail. It’s dark for most of us. For those at the front of the pack, it is maybe mid-afternoon. Headlamps hit the reflective tape of the course markings and we find our way across the creek. The trail ascends again through the deep forest and climbs slowly around a high knob we can’t see above us through the trees. The creek we just crossed fades away to our right as we ascend gradually around the point of the ridge.
The trail winds along up and down as it gradually winds down into Jackson County. The spring briars are thick here and they begin to tear at our socks and the bare skin on our shins and thighs. Around us we can see boulders. Some even have the remnants of chalk from the last group of rock climbers who graced the area. The trail continues to roll along the hillside giving us time to get lost in thought again. This mile is a welcome reprieve from the last couple climbs we’ve had.
We stay along the hillside as the trail begins to go in and out following the contours of the hills. It reminds us of the first few miles of the race as the Sheltowee went in and out and in and out of the hillside crossing creeks and winding around the wide bends. This area is much drier than Red River Gorge, though. We are starting to wonder where the next aid station is. How long has it been since we left the last one? It’s dark now even if the sun hasn’t fully set. The spring forest is thick with green leaves that make a total canopy in this section of the forest. The runner who had been rustling through the leaves behind us miles back has apparently fallen back. It is quiet. Lonely.
We wind around another bend and can feel the forest open up to our right. The hill ascends sharply on our left and descends to our right. We can feel the cool early summer breeze rush through the valley below. It stirs the leaves and makes all kinds of unwanted sounds. “Was that the sound of a twig falling from the tree or a giant bear coming to feast on my bones?”
In and out again around another bend. We try to follow the trail through and around some big blowdowns. These trees probably fell in a recent spring storm.
The trail has been rolling across the hillside for miles now. Finally a change. We begin to descend. For those of us who haven’t reached the “just survive” stage yet this is a pretty fun downhill! Switchbacks take us back and forth over technical terrain that is dotted with roots and rocks. We gain speed as we travel downward and feel the think summer air change as we get deeper and deeper into the valley. We reach the bottom and look around for the trail again. We see the markings on the other side and begin to search for a place to cross. As we sweep the headlamp back and forth we see that this creek bed is filled with absolutely gorgeous natural rock formations. The sound of the rushing creek gives a very welcome break to the evening silence.
We cross the creek over loose rocks and sandy banks. We are able to make it across without getting wet. We follow the creek upstream slightly. We glance off to our left toward the hillside we just came down. We can see a light bouncing down the hill from above. It seems to flash as the runner behind passes behind the trees and reemerges again. We can’t hear the rustling of the leaves of the sound of the water. We continue our hike up the hill leaving the lively creek behind. We are tempted to wait for the other runner just to have some company!
Further up the climb the air begins to smell different. It feels different. It moves more. We are hearing new sounds. BOOM! We hit the ground thanks a well hidden root that caught the toe of our shoe as we looked up to our left at what we think is a road. The trail is narrow here and uneven. The trail is built into a hillside but is not as wide as before. Our left foot keeps wanting to slide down the hill and off the trail as we continue to navigate the tough terrain. Then we hear the voices. We look up ahead and see lights at the top of this incline. Is that music too? We reach the top and emerge onto a crushed gravel road and the aid station. And our crew!
We are thrilled to see our crew. The last many miles have been a challenge. Our first miles of headlamp running. Our first miles of feeling alone. We rest and recuperate. We get the encouragement we need from the volunteers at the Turkey Foot aid station and continue on. The Sheltowee Follows the road here for a few hundred feet before rejoining the forest. A steep but short climb takes us up about 50 feet above the road. We can still see the road below us to our left and hear the commotion of the crews stationed along it leading up to the aid station in the Turkey Foot Recreation Area.
The trail turns around a bend and begins to widen. It’s not quite something you could take an ATV on yet but we are able to run side by side with another runner. It’s rocky under the leaves and begins to take a toll on our tired feet. It dawns on us that we’ve already run a 50 Miler and are on the verge of passing the 100K mark. We notice our heart rate is elevated even though we aren’t climbing anything major. It is an incline, though. Ever so slight. Then we remember that we are beginning the ascent from Turkey Foot to Highway 89. A 450’ climb over 5 miles. 450’ in 5 miles. It doesn’t sound that daunting, but we realize that we may need walk for the next couple of hours.