On The Trail: Mile 61-80 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
We’ve left the Turkey Foot Aid Station behind. We began a gradual ascent up the side of the ridge letting the gravel road fade off in the distance behind. After a short downhill, we cross the middle fork of Elsam Creek - another beautiful creek crossing based on what we can make out with our headlamp. It is dark for some of us. Maybe midnight. For others, it is late afternoon or evening. Many have not made it this far. Many will not make it this far. The afternoon heat and overall grind of the War Hammer 100 have already caused many to question their life choices. We press on as the trail follows the creek which rushes to our right.
We cross the creek again from the south bank to the north and continue the climb. This has been a 500’ climb which spans nearly five miles. Those numbers seem like nothing on paper but the climb has brutal now that we are racing. The fatigue in our legs and the weight of our packs lets our bodies know just how exhausted we are. The path is wide and makes for a decent hike. The footing is sure as we trudge upward. We climb back and forth along switchbacks and eventually come to a smooth gravel and dirt road. We look around for the trail markings and see them on the other side of the road. We cross and press on after a brief rest at the top.
The trail follows the road here. It is off to our left and slightly above us. We are grateful for the smooth double-track. Those of us with a running buddy can now run side by side. This is another great opportunity to let the heart rate settle after that long climb, take in some food and fluids, and let the mind wander. Our thoughts are interrupted, however, by the sound of commotion ahead. Those of us running in the dark see lights ahead. We cross another paved road and after a couple hundred feet come to the Highway 89 Aid Station. It was a long climb to get here but somehow the time seemed to go by really fast. We are happy for the aid and the encouragement.
After leaving the aid station we run on the shoulder of Highway 89 for maybe 40 yards before following the markers to the left and back onto the trail. We drop slightly below the highway that rises to our right. This is true single-track trail the winds around trees and over fallen branches. The leaves rustle as we shuffle along. Our next aid station is McKee at mile 67. Not too much further now. We can see the ridge drop steeply to our left. There is probably another one of those gorgeous creeks below. The trail seems to flirt with the idea of descending to the bottom, but each time we think it is going to it winds back toward the highway. We can hear cars passing on the road nearby. “Do they even know we are down here?” We wonder. “Do they understand what we’re going through?”
We are up on the ridgeline still. Those of us racing for one of those top spots are gaining some serious ground now. The trail drops slightly and ascends even more slightly. Then up and down again. We know from studying the elevation profile that after this last climb there is a big descent into the town of McKee. Every time we crest one of these little hills we think this is the descent. This is the last little hill before we can let gravity take us to the next aid station. Yet it doesn’t seem to be coming.
Up and down it goes. Again and again. We wonder when the big descent is going to come, not because we need the aid station. We just left Highway 89 not too long ago, so we are good on supplies. We just want that downhill! We want gravity to do some of the work for us. We stop for a minute as the trail curves leftward around a bend. We can see that we are high on the ridge. We are a little frustrated with wondering when the big descent is going to come. We continue around the bend, and the trail turns sharply to the right. And down! Down and down and down. Here we go!
The downhill is not steep but it is technical. Our tired quads are now regretting our previous desire to take on this downhill. The path winds along the contour of the ridge and over small streams that are trying to make their way down to the bottom of the valley to feed Elisha Branch which in turn feeds Birch Lick Creek. We continue our descent. It is again another 500’ drop. We see the lights ahead of the aid station. As we reach the bottom we see the aid station, but we can’t get there! The creek stands between us and the aid station. We must cross. Some of us tiptoe downstream to find a spot where we can cross. Some of us no longer care about wet feet and simply cross where the trail does. The water is warm and calf deep. The aid station volunteers laugh at our growing apathy toward physical discomfort.
Mile 68 is no fun. It is road. Running on the shoulder of Highway 421 which connects McKee to other towns to the west such as Berea and Interstate 75. We pass residences and businesses. The ridges rise to right and left. We embrace the positives: the road is flat and smooth and offers a chance to gather ourselves after the past several miles. We also can prepare ourselves for what lies ahead. Some have suggested that the miles from 70-85 are some of the hardest on the course. We shall see about that.
We reach the Big Turtle trailhead on our left. It has a small parking area there where a few interested spectators are watching this strange display of masochism. We leave the road and join the trail. But first, we must cross yet another creek. “The RD did say this is where we start running into all the water crossings after all.”
We cross. There isn’t a decent way across it, and we know we’ve got to bite the bullet at some point. It too is ankle deep. On the other side, the trail begins to climb. It is another wide double-track type of trail that is welcome, but we must also navigate those puddles that indicate ATVs have been here. The rocks underfoot are big ankle breakers that make it hard to ascend.
We continue on upward hopping over and around puddles and small trickles of water that descend to the valley behind us. We finally reach the top of the climb where the trails meet a gravel forest road. That was a brutal climb, so we are glad to see a slight change of pace as the course markings follow the road to our right. We turn right and follow the road. The breeze moves faster now that we have regained the ridge. Rock shelters reach out toward the roadside as we continue down the road.
We aren’t quite at the top of the ridge. The terrain descends steeply to the left side of the road. On the right side of the road, the rocky cliff-like terrain rises another 30-40 feet. The road winds along and we are glad that our shoes are starting to drain but disheartened at how heavy they feel after crossing the creek below and making that climb out of McKee.
Trail markings catch our attention to the left as they follow the official Sheltowee Trace markers into the woods. We leave the road behind and begin to descend. It is single-track trail again that is technical and steep. Some of us trip over the big rocks underfoot. Some of us pound down the hill if we have any legs left. Most of us take our time. The trail loops between large boulders and twists in order to avoid the steep drop off to our left. We can see the creek below and feel the cooler air. Rocks expose themselves above us to the right. We brush past rhododendron leaves that reach across the trail as it descends further until joining Hooten Branch at the bottom.
We cross the creek. Or rather, the creek crosses the trail. Then it seems to run right along the trail! The ground is wet because the creek seems to be unable to decide where it wants to be. Sometimes it runs right down the middle of the trail. Sometimes it falls off to the right and left. We follow the flat valley for a time until the trail ascends again to our right. We hop across another trickle coming down the hillside and leave the branch behind to climb back up another hill.
The trail cuts sharply to the left and continues upward through the thickly wooded forest. The ground is wet here. Wetter than anything we’ve seen yet. We notice how difficult it would be to navigate if we didn’t have the course markings. ATVs have carved an intricate network of side paths here that cross the Sheltowee back and forth. We crest the steep hill and see another gravel road through the trees. It is perhaps 50 feet away, but the trail bends in the other direction.
The road stays to our right and slightly above us as the trail dips gradually to the side of the ridge. This is rolling trail that sees a lot of mixed use. There has been some strange placement of concrete pavers through here. Very strange. They have been placed here to help combat erosion from the mixed usage of the trail, but we still find it odd. One minute we are running on soft dirt, and the next we hit some hard concrete. It’s unsettling, but we press on.
The noise ahead rises as the trail turns to grass and we see the S-Tree aid station to our right. Our crew is there!
We could really fly through here if not for the large puddles caused by ATVs and Mountain Biking. We step around them. Every time we step around one we look ahead to see another. Sometimes the trail actually goes around them. Most of the time, however, we just have to find some reasonably dry footing to get around the large water obstacles. It is impossible to get into any kind of running rhythm now. Frustration creeps in, and we try to battle it back down. The ground is wet.
This mile is much the same as the last. We follow the wide track along the side of the ridge and press ourselves onward through the obstacles. It’s tough, but hey at least it’s not another road.
Then we see the road.
We meet the gravel road and follow the trail markings along it. The road descends almost immediately down the side of the ridge opposite where we’ve been running for the last couple of hours. It’s a steady downhill along a crushed gravel forest road. We are actually a little grateful because we can finally find a rhythm and just run! The road whips around the hillside and ascends slightly (another chance to walk and rest), and drops again toward the first major water crossing of the race.
We’ve already crossed a few creeks, but most of them we could step across on rocks or get only slightly wet. This one is different. This one completely crosses the road. It isn’t just the placement of the creek that gets your attention; it is the width. It is probably 25 feet across and shin deep. We look upstream. The woods are too thick. We look downstream. There is nowhere to cross. The only way across...is through.
On the other side of the creek, we are thoroughly soaked. Our feet are wet now. Those of us who changed shoes back at S-Tree are cursing aloud now because our fresh footwear is soaked through. The gravel road continues past small homes, and we wonder how people even get here. Do they have to drive through that creek every time they need to leave the house? A dog barks from a house that sits high on the hill to our left. It is late in the night now. Very few of us will see this section in the daylight. For those of us chasing the cut-offs, we may actually be catching the sunrise any minute now. The sound of the dog’s barks fades not because we’ve gotten too far away. No. We block it out because we’ve come to another damn water crossing. Right across the road! There is no way around it. Plus our feet are already wet, so what the hell.
We continue down the road. Our shoes making a squishing sound as they attempt to drain after our repeated forays through Raccoon Creek. The road is deep in the valley, and midnight air gives us our first real chill. It’s June, but we are cold! How is that? Our wet feet carry us further down the road until the road turns sharply to the right and crosses the creek yet again! Luckily we don’t have to follow it. We’ve reached the Raccoon Creek Aid Station.