ON THE TRAIL: Mile 1-20 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 references in relation to landmarks described in this post are approximate.
War Hammer 100 Mile Endurance Run
Red River Gorge. The Gladie Visitor Center is tucked between ridges as many landmarks in Red River Gorge are. June brings a lot of green to the RRG area, and the Gorge is alive with the sounds of the flowing Red River; hikers, climbers, runners, swimmers, and paddlers enjoying the outdoors; and richly diverse wildlife.
We begin the race in the field behind the Gladie Visitor Center and run briskly through soft grassy fields along the banks of the Red River. We follow a short crushed gravel path onto Highway 715 which crosses over Gladie Creek via a narrow stone bridge that leads to the Bison Way Trailhead. It is here we find our first trail and scramble up the rock stairs along Bison Way Trail: a wet and muddy trail that gradually ascends the hillside.
After 1 mile we leave Bison Way Trail as it ends and joins the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. The trail is a “T” here. We hang a left onto the Sheltowee Trace and continue our climb past Indian Staircase to the top of the ridge where we see Indian Arch - one of the many natural arches Red River Gorge is famous for. Indian Arch is on our right as we pass and continue around the point and onto a steep descent down sandstone that has been smoothed by years of erosion.
We dig our heels in at the bottom of the hill and bank hard to the right into a pine-filled section of rolling hillside running. The gorge drops steeply to our left and climbs elegantly to the right as we get lost in the deep green cover of the forest. Greasy Branch is the name of the first of many small stream crossings in this area as the Trace weaves in and out of the hillside through small, trickling tributaries that slowly feed the ancient Red River below.
In and out we go as we roll along the hillside and around the point. Cloudsplitter, the popular overlook that is a tourist favorite, is above us. Red River Gorge visitors visit Cloudsplitter year round to take in what many consider to be some of the best views in the Gorge. We will likely pass a hiker or two who camped up there last night as they make their way back to their car. Day hikers are coming up the hill in the opposite direction looking forward to taking in the sweeping landscape above and wondering what all these runners are doing out so early.
The sun is rising now, but we cannot see it. We are too deep in the forest. Too preoccupied with the ground beneath us in the gray light of the early morning.
On and on we follow as the Trace loops wide right around the point of the ridges and hard left again over the flowing creeks. These are easy to get over with a little hop. The ground is soft and covered with a mix of twigs and pine needles above the dirt that has been softened by the spring rains. As the trail descends we can begin to hear the cars going by on Highway 715 below. On we descend gradually toward the first aid station of the course as we approach the pavement.
Crossing the road and leaving the aid station we descend a short, technical section toward the swinging suspension bridge that takes the Sheltowee Trace across a wide section of the Red River. DON’T RUN HERE! No no no. We have a long way to go and plenty of time to do it. Besides, the bouncing created by running greatly weakens the supports of the bridge. We take our time walking across the bridge to enjoy the steadily flowing river. This section is quiet and serene as we travel along the river banks. A short switchback takes us a little higher on the hillside, but the river is still just beneath us flowing steadily and slowly.
We continue on this level section for a little bit longer taking in the darkness of the forest despite the fact that the sun has risen by now. We are deep in the gorge now, and very little sunlight reaches us. We cross a couple of the many branches of Chimney Top Creek before beginning the second major climb of the course up to Pinch Em Tight Ridge.
The trail makes a hard right, and now we are climbing! It’s a rocky creekbed that ascends to the ridge quickly. The canopy gives way and we get some morning sun on our backs as we power hike to the top. Hands on knees. Heart rates rising. Runners of the Rough Trail 50K and 25K will recognize this section as they come down this section on the shorter ultra.
We gain the ridge and enjoy a rolling singletrack trail as we pass over signature rock. The trail is much more dry up here with dry needles and brittle branches littering the trailside. Rough Trail goes off to our right and - a little later - Buck Trail goes off to our left.
We travel up and over more exposed sandstone formations and even through some loose sand that might even remind us of running along the beach. The rolling singletrack gradually rises to the popular Tunnel Ridge Road. We follow the Trace to our left and reach the Pinch Em Tight parking lot and our second aid station!
Leaving the aid station we have roughly a half mile of rolling dirt before the Trace spits us back out onto Tunnel Ridge Road. We follow the gravel forest road over the 4-lane Bluegrass Parkway and cross another highway as the trail re-enters the green cover of the forest.
We begin a switchbacked descent toward Whittleton Branch. The ground is wet. The trees are wet. The air we breath feels wet. It is green and full of life as we approach Whittleton Campground along the creek bed descending further and further.
Mile 13 brings us into Whittleton Campground as we enter Natural Bridge State Park from the north. We join the paved road that gives campers access to the popular campground. A short uphill along Highway 15 as we leave the campground to the left takes us to our third aid station of the day in the trailhead parking lot of the State Park.
We loop around along the banks of the lake in the State Park and cross over the lake via another swinging bridge. NO RUNNING! We walk across the bridge, follow the turtle emblem and trail markings, and begin a steep but manageable ascent up to the ridge past Balanced Rock. It is manageable because much investment has been made it keep these trails in good condition given the high amount of traffic the park sees year round.
We reach the top and the famous Natural Bridge is off to our right. We can’t quite see it, however; and we aren’t going there today. No. We have more pressing matters at hand, so we keep left and stay on the Sheltowee Trace. Here the trail is a long, flowing singletrack beauty with incredible views of the Red River Gorge to both right and left.
We make our way through the southern regions of the State Park and into a section known as The Narrows. We pass over Whites Branch Arch as the trail widens to a more rugged double track arrangements. This is due to years of ATV traffic that has since been blocked off and is now recently in dispute between public and private landowners. The Narrows is great running though! Here are a few photos of the things you'll see in The Narrows.
We continue through The Narrows as it winds along the ridge and leaves the State Park.
Here the Sheltowee leaves the dirt behind and joins Big Bend Road - a backwoods gravel and dirt road that rolls and winds southward into Lee County Kentucky. We are less than 25% into the race and are already entering our fourth county!
We begin to see more and more signs of civilization as we continue down the gravel road. Fences pop up as well as drilling sites. We see some residences in the distance across fields of high grass.
The trees move further and further to the left and right as we approach Highway 1036 on the Powell and Lee County Line. The shade becomes lighter and lighter as the forest opens up more and more. We have been running for several hours now. It is mid-morning. Maybe late-morning for some of us. The temperature has been steadily climbing all morning, but it has been manageable because we’ve been protected by the deep green cover of the forest.
Now we are exposed as the gravel road meets Highway 1036. We reach our fourth aid station at the end of Big Bend Road. This aid station is the oasis at the edge of the desert. We must next leave the Sheltowee Trace and follow 1036 west (a left turn from the direction we came from down Big Bend Road). We feel the first stings of the summer heat on our shoulders and the soles of our feet as it radiates off the black pavement below.
Ahead of us lies a long 10 mile stretch of exposed gravel and dirt roads through Kentucky’s rugged backcountry. This will take us a few hours through the heat of the midday sun. And as we steel ourselves to leave the comfort of the aid station at the mouth of Big Bend Road, we have our first thoughts of quitting.