On The Trail: Mile 1-15 of the Big Turtle 50 Miler
A Mile-by-Mile Guide To The Big Turtle 50 Miler Trail Races
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.
Note that this blog is written primarily from the perspective of a 50 Mile racer.
Big Turtle 50 Miler
April in Kentucky. If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. Kentucky: where the weather is made up and the seasons don’t matter. We Kentuckians have heard the jokes over and over. If those wisecracks ever ring true it is in the month of April. March in Kentucky is basically still winter. May feels like summer. But April? Who knows what April will bring. Spring in Kentucky is a wet season regardless, but in the past several years we have seen both snow and 90-degree temperatures in the month of April. It is an extremely unpredictable time of year making the Big Turtle trail races a particularly difficult endeavor to train for.
It is dark when we show up to the race. We have already parked in the overflow lot and crossed the highway to get to the race site. Passing by Dairy Queen we arrive at Laughlin Hall on the campus of Morehead State University. It’s dark when we get there. The morning sun has turned the sky a dull gray as light begins to wake the town of Morehead, Kentucky. It is cool in the morning air as we get our packets, meet friends new and old, and fidget with the nervousness that comes inherent in every race morning. The spring rains have made the green lawn soft under our feet. We wonder how wet the trail will be.
The horn blows at 7:00 in the dot and we leave the soft lawn of Laughlin Hall and hit the paved walkways of the University. We pass the University Police offices, the Music Building, and turn right onto Evans Branch Road. Evans Branch is a small creek that flows through and under the city from Eagle Lake. The road rises as we pass the parking garage, the impressive athletic facility, and a few residence halls. Our police escort stops at the trailhead near Eagle Lake giving us an encouraging nod as we hop the chain and hit the trail for the first time.
A short, wide track along the lakeshore opens into a marshy field that leads to the first singletrack of the day. It is also the toughest climb of the day. Thank goodness we have fresh legs at this point! Heart Attack Hill is what the locals call it. It ascends rapidly to the ridge above the lake over short switchbacks that weave through the trees along the natural contour of the hill. All of the energy of our fellow runners who shot out of the gate from the starting line has come to a screeching halt. We are all walking now.
We crest the hill after a sharp right-hand turn at the top and dare to run again. A quick look over our left shoulder shows the town of Morehead, the University, and the quiet lake now far below us. We will be back this evening.
We run but it’s hard. We are still breathing heavily from the climb. We are already sweating. Thoughts of “This is going to be a long day” and “What have I done” begin to creep in. We push them down. It’s early. It’s not time to race yet. We need to find a rhythm.
It is tough here trying to make the run or walk decision. We are no longer on a steep climb as in mile 1, but the trail continues to ascend gradually. It is runnable, but do we walk anyway in order to conserve energy. The trail forks and suddenly catches our attention. We follow our companions to the right fork to stay on the Sheltowee Trace. We are all still in a group. The early climb up Heart Attack Hill prohibits all but the rabbits in front from gaining much distance on anyone else.
We are having fun now! This is ridgetop running at its best. Up and down as the trail winds along the top of the ridge. The trees are thick and green. The trail is technical: rocky in some places and steep in others. It requires our full attention. The fatigue of the early climb is gone now, and we are just rolling along as the trail bobs and weaves. We pass through a powerline clearing with the hum of the wires high above us and catch our first views of the forest below. Green everywhere!
In mile 4 we get our first taste of gravel road running. Here the trail begins to duck in and out of the road. We come out of the trail with the road on our left. We turn right on the road until we see trail markers leading off into the woods after only 100 yards. Another couple of football fields worth of trail running and we are back on the road. The trail joins and leaves the road over and over. It’s easy to just let our minds wander and not look for the course markings here.
We pass by a large metal gate block the road and quickly run along the side of the ridge and the point rises to our left. The trail forks in several places challenging us to look up and down and up and down in order to negotiate the rocky terrain and still ensure we don’t accidentally take one of the many side trails that exist here. We hop over a few downed trees and hear cowbells ahead! We’ve reached the Saved By The Bell aid station. 10 Miler runners will turn around at this point. 50K runners and 50 Miler runners will be back here in a few hours (or many hours).
After passing the aid station we are immediately back on the singletrack trail after crossing the gravel road. The trail never truly leaves sight of the gravel road. We rise over short climbs as the level road snakes along below us to our right. The trail dips again gradually and dumps us out on the road again. Here is a nearly half a mile along the gravel before the pink and black checkered ribbons and flags indicate that we must peel off onto the trail yet again.
We now get a quarter mile of trail that gives us a thick shade. Then we are back on the road yet again! Now it is time for the long haul along Forest Road 977. We will not see a dirt trail again for a few more miles. Luckily, the road here is very runnable. The gravel has been crushed by regular vehicle traffic and actually gives us a chance to stretch out and just enjoy the morning run.
Those of us in front have been on the course for a little over an hour. Most of us are nearing the 2-hour mark by now. The 10 Milers are starting soon. Maybe they already have started. “Someone should warn them about that first climb,” we think. The gradual downward slant of the gravel road lets gravity do much of the work along this section as we simply follow the road. Trail markings are sparse through here, but we can still hear the repetitive crunch of our fellow racers as we travel along in groups.
Side roads slope off to the left and right heading down from the ridge in either direction. The spring flowers on the trees create a rich purple corridor turning the otherwise boring, gray road into a vibrant hall rich with the smells of spring. The road bends to the right and begins to ascend. We can run it. It is a gradual incline, and we can see life at the top of the rise.
A quick up and another quick down lead us to the final incline along the road that takes us to the aid station. We can hear the commotion up there. We can see bodies milling about and cars parked along the road as we gradually climb up. We instinctively pick up the pace because we don’t want to be seen walking this early in the race!
We’ve reached our second aid station: Family Matters. The Race Directors think they are being funny naming all the aid stations after 90s TV shows. We won’t be laughing on our way back!
Leaving the aid station the gravel ends at the highway at the bottom of the hill. This is our only true road running of the day. We turn left and run along the shoulder of the two-lane highway passing over Interstate 64 along the way. The road is level here and our main concern is just making sure that we stay on the correct side of the white line to avoid becoming too intimate with oncoming traffic. This is a back road, however, and it is still early on a Saturday morning. So luckily we only see a couple of cars.
Orange cones block the shoulder now, and a sign taped to one of the cones points to our right. Across the road, we can see the trail where the ribbons indicate that we must follow the trail into the woods. We cross the road and hit the trail again.
A short section of old dirt road makes a hairpin turn onto the singletrack and suddenly plummets! It is a steep downhill here that is slick from the morning dew that has been kept in place by the heavy shade of the forest canopy. We grasp at trees and limbs as we descend trying to keep our balance and keep from sliding all the way down. Halfway down we have our first thought about the truth of this out and back course: “We’re going to have to come UP this later!”
At the bottom of the hill, the trail meets Big Tom Brown Branch, a narrow creek that has carved out this deep valley of the course of centuries upon centuries. It’s muddy here but absolutely stunning. Ridges rise on both sides and we truly feel protected by the forest that covers us from the outside world. This is why we run trails. This beauty. This solitude. We hop over the water as the trail and the creek wind in and out of each other’s path.
The forest suddenly opens and wakes us from our amazement at the beauty of the valley. We find ourselves in an open, grassy field and follow the ribbons around its perimeter. We run along the larger Holly Fork Creek noticing an old pickup truck that has become encased in the trunk of a great oak tree that has grown around it. We wonder how long it has been there. We wonder of the story behind how it got there. Then we reach the bridge!
The swinging bridge over the Holly Fork is nothing less than iconic. It has become synonymous with the Big Turtle trail races. It is little more than a few six-inch by ten-inch planks held up by thick wires. We negotiate the bridge ever so gently praying to whoever might listen that it doesn’t fall. On the other side, we cross Holly Fork Road and re-enter the forest. We get more of the same beauty here as we follow Deep Cut Branch. The creek feeds the bigger Holly Fork, and it also provides life to all the greenery that surrounds us. Ferns brush against our shins leaving cool water running down onto our socks. The trunks of the maple, poplar, and oak trees are covered in bright green moss. The sounds of insects, frogs, and the trickling water fill the air as we reach the next big climb.
Here the trail ascends sharply as we must pass over another ridge before reaching the next aid station. At the top, the trail opens into a wide grassy opening that was cleared long ago to make way for the gas line that now runs under the ground beneath us. In the next section of wooded hills, we pass through a gate indicating we have passed into someone’s field. The Clark family owns this land and for years have graciously allowed the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail to pass through their property. The family even erected a picnic shelter with potable water to assist hikers as they pass through. We follow the trail markings as they descend down the other side of the ridge leading to another gate. Now we are at Dry Branch Road, and we can see that picnic shelter along with a noisy group of volunteers at that very picnic shelter. We cross the road smiling and shuffle into the aid station to restock, refuel, and gather our wits for what lies ahead.