Leaving It All Out There

A Recap Of The Big Turtle 50 Miler Race Director's Challenge

Not every adventure goes as planned. In trail and ultramarathon running we encounter obstacles around every turn while we are on a long run or in the middle of a race. Those who find the race finish line or complete a particularly challenging run are not necessarily those who are the most fit or physically able. Those who complete the task are the individuals who are most able to overcome the obstacles encountered along the way. Those obstacles present themselves in many ways. They can be environmental barriers like trees or steep uphills. They can be mental barriers like lack of motivation or discouragement. They can be physical barriers such as exhaustion or even injury. Reaching the end of a long run or race involves encountering each obstacle and overcoming it. We often tell ourselves and each other (especially in race situations) to leave everything out there. Give it all we’ve got. Refuse to be stopped. But is that the best course of action for all of us?

Last week I did something stupid. Let’s call it like it is. I took on the first of our new Race Director Challenges by attempting to run the Big Turtle 50 Miler course. For those not familiar with the idea, the Next Opportunity Race Directors Challenge is something we created for ourselves here at Next Opportunity in which we will attempt to run every single one of our race distances throughout the year. It is intended to be a fun thing that our runners can follow along with and see how we - the Race Organizers - handle our own races when the shoe is on the other foot.

The rules we imposed for ourselves are simple:

  1. We must start at the same time of day that the race starts.
  2. We may only receive aid at official race day aid station locations.
  3. We must complete our challenge within the race’s official cut-off time.
  4. We must run or walk the entire course. No shortcuts!

I set out to run the 50 miles of the Big Turtle 50 Miler completely self-supported. I placed some water, food, and spare gear at the turnaround point at mile 25. Other than that, I carried everything I needed for the run on my back in my Orange Mud Adventure Pack.

As the run progressed I streamed my experiences by way of Facebook Live videos every hour. To see those videos please visit the Next Opportunity Events Facebook feed to find the videos that were posted on Thursday, March 15.

How It Started

I started my run shortly after 7am on Thursday, March 15. It was still dark, so I used my headlamp for roughly the first 30 minutes. I started on the front lawn of the Laughlin Building at Morehead State University. As I begin my initial trot through campus I passed the MSU Track Team out on their morning run. A few of them recognized me as they have volunteered at our races in the past. So they bid me “good luck” and I went on my way past Eagle Lake and into the woods.

I blazed through the first five miles of the course - a section I have run more times than any other and one I feel I can run with my eyes closed. The sun came up, and I eventually found myself two hours in at mile 11. I knew already that I was going too fast, but I felt fantastic despite the biting, cold wind along the ridge.

I tore down the hill toward Big Tom Brown Branch and recorded another video as I crossed over the rickety swinging bridge along Holly Fork Road. Up and over the hill and before I knew it I was 16 miles in cresting the hill above the Boy Meets World aid station and recording my hour 3 video. The day was going so fast! I didn’t even stop to think that I might need to slow down or actually pace myself. Now there is a novel concept!

The Turtle’s Spine

Passing mile 17 on my route I did the honorable thing and ran down to the bottom of the hill along Elk Lick Road and right back up just as runners will do on race day. Then it was on to the Turtle’s Spine. Several of our runners agreed after this run that is what we would call it henceforth. The Turtle’s Spine is a 16-mile stretch with only one aid station on race day. It involves the 8 miles between the Fresh Prince aid station at Elk Lick Road and the Wonder Years aid station at the northern terminus of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail - the turnaround for the 50-mile course. Eight miles outbound. Eight miles inbound. One chance for aid. It earned the name because the elevation profile from that section of the race course actually makes up the back of the turtle’s shell in the race logo.

I’ve run that eight mile stretch probably six or seven times. I know it. I know the ups, the downs, the trees you have to climb over, the sections with briars that tear at your shins, and the spots where it is easy to accidentally venture off the trail if you aren’t paying attention. However, I have always run the Turtle’s Spine as its own segment. I either start at one end or the other and run just the eight miles, or I’ll run the full 16 miles out and back. Never have I ever run those 16 miles after running 17 miles prior to getting there.

That is what makes the Turtle’s Spine so difficult. So demoralizing. It is not difficult because of its own features. It is the combined fatigue that a runner experiences along that particular route that makes the 16-mile Turtle’s Spine a soul crusher.

By A Thousand Cuts

The Turtle’s Spine is a not a section of trail that is going to make it into any outdoor magazines. It’s not terribly scenic and has no real defining features. It won’t make any trail runner’s list of “Most Epic Runs” or “Biggest Climbs” or “Most Technical Trails.” It might not even be something a Big Turtle racer remembers very vividly after the race. It’s subtle. It’s discrete.

It is the single section of the Big Turtle 50 Miler race course that leads to the most DNFs (Did Not Finish) on race day.

It has no single climb greater than 100’ in elevation gain except for the ascent back up to the ridge after leaving the turnaround. None of the hills are even notably steep. In fact, most runners would call the entire “runnable” upon first glance. And that is what leads to the runner’s demise.

The Turtle’s Spine is not a knockout punch. It is a short jab to the nose over and over again. The first hit not doing much damage but ultimately leaving the fighter bruised, bloodied, and defeated at the final bell. While this section of the Big Turtle course has only one significant climb, it is where runners will rack up the majority of the elevation gain and descent throughout the race. Up and down and up and down, runners can be fooled into thinking they can run the entire thing. Ultimately, they find themselves at mile 30 with no gas left in the tank and a strong desire to quit. It is not a knife to the heart. It is death by a thousand cuts.

Beaten By The Turtle

It happened to me. After making my turnaround and restocking my food and water during my Race Directors Challenge of the Big Turtle 50 Miler, I felt fine traveling back up the ridge and southbound toward my car. However, I shuffled onto Elk Lick Road at approximately mile 34. I went down the hill and straight back up like a good boy in order to exactly mimic the race day route. After rejoining the trail I tried to run but couldn’t. It hurt. I was tired. My legs were done. My ankles were done. My motivation was gone.

I called Brandy to come and pick me up. I am fortunate to have a partner who will drive over an hour to pick me up from the side of a trail! I didn’t really reflect too much on my experiences as I walked the remaining few miles to Holly Fork Road where I told Brandy to meet me. I’m not sure I could point to one single thing that led my inability to complete the 50 (ok 52) mile route. Maybe it was the 12-pound pack I was carrying with me. Maybe it was my lack of any kind of real, focused training. Maybe I had run too fast for the first few hours. Maybe, because this was a self-imposed challenge, I had no real motivation for putting myself through extreme torture just to get back to my car. My guess is that probably all of those things combined to make it impossible for me to complete the task that day.Leaving Morehead that afternoon I had an even more greatly heightened respect for finishers of the Big Turtle now knowing what they went through after the jagged trip along the Turtle’s Spine. I had a greater love and respect for those who did not finish the race in 2017 because - if I’m honest - I don’t think I could have done it either. In fact, as of now, I can’t.

What’s Next

The Next Opportunity Race Directors Challenges continue. Next Brandy will take on the 10-mile race course, and I will try to get some form of redemption by running the Big Turtle 50K route in April. Follow us on social media for updates as our adventures continue.

Michael WhismanComment