On The Trail: Mile 33-50(ish) 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
Fresh Prince. Those 90s TV Show aid station names were funny for the first few hours. We even managed a smile at the Northern Terminus as we rolled into the Wonder Years aid station. It’s not so funny anymore. The Big Turtle 50 Miler has mutated into a fun day in the woods with friends into simple survival.
It’s not that we weren’t prepared. We trained all winter for this race. We knew it would be hard. Running 50 miles on foot in a single day is hard regardless of terrain or conditions. It’s not that we weren’t expecting to get discouraged. It’s not that we are caught off-guard. It’s not that we are weak. It’s that we didn’t expect to want to quit this early.
Walking up Elk Lick road to rejoin the trail we use the time to ask ourselves one last time if we want to quit.
Turning right on the trail we flirt with the idea of running after the long hike up. Appreciating the encouragement from the volunteer course marshal at the top of the hill we decide to continue at a walk. The trail is still ascending albeit gradually. There is still a long way to go. 17 miles to go. Maybe longer. Race Directors always lie about the distance. They always tell you there is more elevation than there actually is and that there are fewer miles than there actually are. Race Directors. We blame them for this mess. It is all their fault.
We leave the rusty barbed wire behind as the trail finally begins a slight descent. Now we can run. We give ourselves a mental pat on the back for being patient over the last mile and choosing to walk for a bit. It was a much-needed recovery, and we now have renewed energy as we head down the hill. Already we can hear the commotion from the Boy Meets World aid station below. A light flashes through the trees below us, and we realize it is the evening sun reflecting off a car windshield. It’s easier to smile now as we roll into this aid station. It’s time to refill our water supply as we can still feel a little dehydrated from the last 15 miles or so. It’s nice to stand under the picnic shelter while the volunteers get us some water. It’s cool under here.
It’s time to go again. We cross Dry Branch Road and get back on the trail. Passing through the metal gate again we leave the road behind and curve around the hillside. The trail joins the old road again that ascends to the other side of the ridge above deep cut branch. We nearly took a wrong turn heading down this road on the outbound trip. Now, heading inbound, we know to take the sharp right halfway up the hill. Back at a slow, hiking pace we now begin to question our pacing.
“Should I have run back there?”
“Am I going fast enough?”
“Will I miss the next cut-off?”
We descend the hill again into Deep Cut Branch. Green. The forest is green everywhere and alive with the hum of insects welcoming the cooler evening temperatures. The trickle of the branch is peaceful as it leads us through the valley and out to Holly Fork Road. Crossing the road we realize we had almost forgotten about the swinging bridge. In the outbound direction we laughed when we saw it. It’s such a staple of the Big Turtle we were excited to cross it and grab a quick photo of ourselves crossing the rickety contraption. Now, we are less amused. We’ve lost a lot of confidence in our tired legs and their ability to keep us upright let alone to negotiate the swaying wire-suspended timbers.
Our options, however, are simple: quit now and return to the previous aid station or cross the bridge.
We cross. Thankful for the level ground we skirt the edge of the big field and wonder about the story behind that mobile home at the far end of the grassy opening. It is abandoned. The roof fell in years ago. Who lived there? When did they leave?
We hop over the small creek that is Big Tom Brown Branch and remember what we thought of this area much earlier in the day. We thought it was beautiful. A deep green wetland full of life. We welcomed it after so many miles of running on the gravel road, but now we feel less admirable toward Big Tom Brown Branch. We know what is ahead, so we take our time weaving through the trees and rustling through the leaves.
We hit the bottom of the dreaded hill that will take us back up to the top of the ridge. It is steep with almost no switchbacks. On one hand, we welcome the opportunity to walk. We can hike up the hill at a slow pace without feeling guilty for walking. We’d walk the whole damn thing from here to the finish line if we could!
At the top, the trail bends to the right and turns into gravel. We start to run but think better of it. The trail is still ascending the hill, and we know we have plenty of time to get the next half mile to the aid station before the cut-off. So we walk until the old gravel access road joins the highway. Now we can run. Slowly. Softly. Our only concern is getting to the aid station. Getting down the road so we no longer have cars whizzing by.
We turn right onto the gravel road. It’s dusty. Hard to breathe. All of the back and forth movement of the crew vehicles and the runners ahead has kicked up a cloud of gray dust that fills the air. We almost want to hold our breath as we climb the short hill that brings us to the Family Matters aid station. Seeing the aid station sign we can once again laugh at the stupid aid station names.
The aid station workers are friendly. In fact, they are a riot. They cheer. They crack jokes. They spur us on. It’s good to see crews again and get into our drop bags. It’s now the final stretch, and we can almost allow ourselves a small sense of hope that we might finish this thing! We know, however, that a tough few miles lay ahead. Miles of gravel. Miles of exposure to the sun. Some of us are here in the heat of the late afternoon. Some of us are here later in the evening as the sun sets in front of us. Either way this gravel road is feeling much harder than it did this morning. It’s hotter. The dust rises. We are running westward so the setting sun is shining right in our faces. “Should I have grabbed some sunglasses from the crew back there?”
The miles tick on. We hike the hills and shuffle through the rocks on the downhills and flat sections. Our minds wander. At least we try to make our minds wander. We’d give anything to be anywhere but here right now despite the fact that we paid money to do this to ourselves. We’d love to tune out and just let the miles pass, but our legs are crying for a rest. We have joint pains popping up in our ankles. We have hot spots on our feet. Our backs ache in ways we never thought possible because of our heavy hydration packs.
We begin to count our successes on the day. We haven’t finished anything yet. We haven’t reached our goal of the finish line yet. But we have amassed quite an impressive running resume today. We’ve been on our feet longer than we ever have before. This is the furthest we’ve ever run with a pack on. We’ve covered over 40 miles on foot! We’ve done things that many people deem crazy or impossible. We allow ourselves hope again. Hope that we can do it. Hope that we don’t miss the next cut-off.
We are getting close.
We almost miss the trail! We are back to where the trail begins to weave in and out and off and onto the gravel road. We keep running down the road, and it is only because a runner behind yells to get our attention that we realize we passed the trail completely. Thankful for this community of runners that works so well together we continue up the hill into the woods again with our new friend.
The trail continues to drop to the road, cross the gravel, and ascend the other side. Over and over we travel west and south getting closer and closer to the city of Morehead and that finish line. We crest a small hill that we again hike up. We are running almost none of the uphills now. This isn’t about time or pace. It isn’t about getting a particular ranking or achieving any notoriety. This is about not giving up. It is about pressing onward. Forward.
As we crest the hill we begin a slight descent toward our left and reach the road again and the final aid station of the race. We check our watches to ensure we are still in front of the cut-off. We are.
Leaving the aid station we have a bit of a pep in our step. We know that other people have said that the first and last five miles of the race are the hardest, but we also know that we are almost there. Nothing stands in between us and the finish line. No aid stations. No road crossings. Just 5 miles of trail that goes up and down along the jagged ridge. We can turn back and quit or finish. Those are the choices.
We try to remember what these upcoming miles looked like this morning. We can’t. It seems like so long ago. It was.
It’s dark now for many of us. We stopped briefly at the last aid station to strap on our headlamps and continue on. The hanging ribbons shine brightly as the light from our headlamps catches the silvery reflective tape leading us home. We remember bits and pieces of the trail from the outbound trip so many hours ago. The jagged rocks. The sharp turn near the geocache location. Two and a half miles to go and a soft, orange glow warms the night sky to our left. We stop to investigate and see the city of Morehead. It is far below us, and we still have a few miles left. But the sight of the buildings and the ambient glow of the street lights and business signs gives us another boost of energy.
Despite the difficulty of these miles, we have a new spirit. We know we are now closer to the finish line than any aid station. Finishing the race is no longer just a goal of ours. It is now also the EASIEST thing we could do. It is farther for us to turn around and go back to the last aid station that it is to reach the finish line. Even if we did go back we’d have to wait for an hour or more before someone could come to the aid station and give us a ride back to campus. Alternatively, we could press onward with our own two feet and be there in a half hour. Or more. Or less.
We curse each downhill and each uphill. We barely have the strength to get up these short, steep climbs. Our legs can no longer take the beating of these relentless, rocky downhills.
We follow the reflective ribbons. They dot the trail leading back to Morehead like runway lights indicating the approach path for a lost aircraft. Leading us home. We take a sharp left where the trail forks. We remember that from this morning. We remember how close it was to the start line!
One more brutal climb and the trail finally begins to level and eventually descend gradually. You watch says 50 now. Maybe 51. Damn Race Directors.
The glow from the city has been straight ahead now and we at last reach what we have dreaded all day: that last downhill. The long, steep climbed that opened the race is now a horrid monster that threatens to send us to the finish line with fresh cuts and bruises. We stumble as our foot catches a root, but we stop ourselves by grabbing a nearby tree. Thankful to the young sapling we continue downward, hands out to balance and head down to illuminate the path. Reaching the bottom we know we’ve done it. We aren’t there yet, but we’ve done it. We pass the small pond that is alive with frogs making their springtime calls. We join the access road as the grass gives way to mud which gives way to gravel and eventually pavement.
Now we are running. It’s all adrenaline. It’s joy. It’s a strange relief that it is over. It’s anticipation.
Following the markers down the sidewalk we turn onto University Blvd. and hear the music from the finish line. We see the black flags of Next Opportunity Events rising above the tents and commotion on the lawn. The applause begins. The cheers. These people have been here all day welcoming poor souls just like us back from the test of a lifetime.
We reach the lawn and the final few steps through the finishing chute. The Race Directors are there. Those lying, cursed Race Directors!
Friends are there. Friends we’ve known for years. Friends we met just this morning. They waited for us. We’ll wait with them for the next finishers. We have finished the Big Turtle 50 Miler.