On The Trail: Mile 15-33 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
In our last post we left off at the Boy Meets World aid station. Boy Meets World is located at the picnic shelter on the Clarke family farm. There is running water there. A picnic shelter provides shade and a place to sit for those in need. 50K runners are turning around. 50 Mile runners are realizing how much is still left to run.
Leaving the Boy Meets World aid station we know we only have roughly 2 miles until the next aid station. The Fresh Prince aid station is situated along Elk Lick Road and will give us an opportunity to see our crew, reach our drop bags, and stock up for the 8 miles of hell that comes after.
Now as we ascend the hill to regain the ridge above Dry Branch Road we see the farm and the aid station fade below as we get swallowed up once again by the green spring forest. It is a tough climb up to the top that zigs and zags up and up.
As we reach the ridgeline the trail continues a very gradual incline. That climb, for whatever reason, was harder than anticipated. Should we have stopped longer at the last aid station? Did we stay too long?
We wind along through thick, heavy oaks and growing maples that stretch high above toward the sky. The trail opens into another field of high grass, and we think “TICKS!”
Here we start to see gravel roads and the leftover equipment of an ongoing logging operation. We cross the gravel and rise again above it as the trail weaves along the ridge. Suddenly our path is blocked by ribbons, flags, and signs. A volunteer points us to our left and tells us to run down the hill along the gravel road to the Fresh Prince aid station. Big Turtle rookies think very little of the situation except that, “Hey I just had an aid station. I’m good.” Veteran Turtle runners know what is ahead. They know what makes this aid station along Elk Lick Road so dreaded yet so essential.
We reach the bottom. We see the aid station. We see our crew. We grab our drop bag and change out any gear we need. We make sure our bottles and bladders are topped off with fluids. We restock our nutrition, and take a deep breath.
What lies ahead? First, we have to climb right back up the hill we came down. It’s a short climb up the gravel Elk Lick Road. It is only about 150 feet. But we just came down it! “Why can’t they put the aid station at the top of the hill?” we wonder. At the top we turn left again back onto the trail and begin the section of trail that has claimed many a trail runner’s soul in previous years. 8 miles. 8 miles of ridgeline trail running between here and the northern terminus of the Sheltowee Trace. 8 miles to the next aid station. This will take many of us at least a couple of hours. One bottle won’t do. Do we have enough to make it? Now the doubts are really sinking in.
The good thing about the next 8 miles is that the trail is almost entirely single track. It rolls and weaves along the ridgeline as it snakes its way northbound to the far edges of Rowan County, Kentucky. Turning left onto the Trace at the top of the hill along Elk Lick Road the trail continues to ascend gradually as we gain more and more elevation. It is rocky up here. They aren’t big rocks. It is more of a crushed gravel feel although it is clear that the terrain is 100% natural.
The trail opens briefly to a wide opening that almost looks like a field. Tall green grass and high weeds rise to waist level on both sides of the path as we run through the meadow only briefly. The clearing is a natural gas line that has been cut through the forest like a runway. After 50 yards the trail reenters the woods on the opposite side of the clearing. We are hopping over downed trees and ducking under the spring overgrowth that threatens to smack us in the face as we fly past. Yellow markers dot several trees along the right hand side of the trail indicating the boundary of the National Forest.
We can’t help but notice the ever present rusty, brown barbed wire fence that stretches along the trail to our right. It has been there for the past several miles. On the other side of the fence is a small dirt path that looks like it has had a tractor on it recently. It is easy to forget that we are not alone in these woods. Many Kentuckians call this forest home and have done so for generations. Yellow signs have been posted to trees along the right hand side of the trail indicating the landowners preference for privacy.
We are almost lulled into thinking that “this isn’t so hard.” The trail ascends and descends slightly and repeatedly as it continues along the ridge. Few slopes are more than 50 to 100 feet in elevation change. We catch a great view of the valley to our left as the trail reaches a peak and bends sharply left around the point of a ridge.
The ground is rocky then sandy then dirt then rocky again. We enter a thick part of the forest where briars have grown close to the trail’s edges. Too close. They small barbs rip at our shins as we run through stinging our already tired legs. We stop to climb over, under, and through a group of blown down trees as the trail bends sharply left again following the natural path of the hill. We can see where the trail has been diverted from its previoius paths at various places in order to avoid venturing onto private land.
The small inclines and declines begin to mount. We start questioning our strategy. We’ve been running most of this section. Should we have walked more of these little uphills? Should we be taking it easier? We check our watches to make sure we are still in good shape to meet the 3pm cut-off time at the turnaround. It is hot. Midday in the Kentucky spring. The forest is green with flashes of yellow and purple flowers. The leaves here are thick underfoot, and any time we stop for just a moment we can hear the shuffling of our fellow runners ahead and behind. Up. Down. We are dying for an aid station now. Water is running low. “Damn, I wish I had grabbed an extra bottle from my crew!”
The trail is now climbing. Its gradual as the entire trail has been through this section. A gradual battle of wits and strength to keep pressing on despite the tiring legs. Despite the worry of running low on supplies. We run the hill not because we are trying to race the clock. No, it is too early for that. We run the hill because we must get to the next aid station soon. Our water is running dangerously low. We miscalculated what we would need. We miscalculated how hard this section would be. On paper the elevation profile here looks tame. Completely “runnable” even. Now that we are here, however, all of the short ascents and descents are adding up. A sudden explosion of pink ribbons all around us brings us to our senses, and we realize the trail is turning sharply to the left.
The Sheltowee Trace dips between thick Rhodedendron leaves and begins to descend rapidly. We fly down as much as we can on tired legs. We know that the turnaround aid station is at the bottom of this hill. People! Food! Water! We can’t wait. The rocky and rooty trail suddenly demands our attention as one foot grabs a root and nearly sends us tumbling down the steep decline of the hill.
At the bottom the forest is quiet. A small creek trickles along to our left, and we entertain thoughts of taking a nice cool down dip. Time is of the essence, though, and we press onward along the trail that is now fully at the bottom of the valley following the small stream toward the trailhead.
We can hear it now. For the past few miles we’ve been passing runners coming back at us in the opposite direction. Now instead of the standard “Good Job” or “Looking Great” greetings they are saying, “It’s right up there.” They know.
The aid station is situated in a developed trailhead at the northern terminus of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. Many people have begun a long 323-mile long journey from here backpacking from end to end of the Trace.
We drink up the water. We grab a seat in the shade of a pop up tent. The clock is ticking. We have our first thoughts of quitting. Somewhere along the last 25 miles - we aren’t sure where - this race got HARD. We were having fun for the first 15 miles. We were feeling good when we left our crew and drop bags at the last aid station. But as we stand back up and check out of the aid station we are wondering if we’ll make it. We are uncomfortably close to the cut-off time limits.
We hop over the creek and begin a slow jog along the rolling valley floor until we reach the climb.
On the way up we are high fiving our fellow runners who are coming down the hill toward the aid station. “Did I look that brutalized on my way down? Do I look that bad now?” We smile and offer encouragement. With hands on knees we power hike upward, knowing that some of these friends won’t make it. We can tell by the looks on their faces. We can tell by the numbers on our watches which tell us that the cut-off is fast approaching. We wish them well.
There is no need to break down every single mile here. We can’t even discern one mile from the next as we trudge along the ridge, now southbound back toward the finish line. We try to comfort ourselves with the reminder that the entire race from here forward is nothing new. We have seen the entire course now. There are no new obstacles. We are just re-running that last half in reverse. All those uphills are now downhills. All those fun downhills are now brutal climbs. The miles tick on but slowly. So slowly. We keep looking at our watch with mounting frustration wishing the miles would pass more quickly! We are slowing, and we know it. We realize we are no longer passing northbound runners.
The heat rises as the sun crests the sky and begins its descent into evening. For some of us our stomachs are now acting up. It’s hard to keep food down in this heat. For some of us we are battling shear exhaustion at this point. We are tired, and there is still a long way to go.
WHY COULD THEY NOT PUT ANOTHER AID STATION ALONG THIS SECTION?
We check our watches again this time not for pace or mileage or elevation or elapsed time of the race. No. We are looking at the time of day. We know we have to be in and out of the Fresh Prince Aid Station on Elk Lick Road by 5:00 pm. It’s going to be close.
The sun hits us as we enter the gas line again. The tall, green grass on all sides is a sight for sore eyes as it assures us that the aid station is not far ahead. We are running now. We know it’s not much farther. We have a new hope. A new sense of energy. A new sense of urgency as the strict cut-off limits loom. We pop over a short rise and see the volunteers standing ahead directing us off the trail once again. Once again onto the gravel road. Some of us bound down the hill eager to see our crew, grab our drop bag, and stuff our faces with all the food we can find at the aid station. Some of us walk letting the legs rest because we know there is still a lot of race left. A lot of room for error. A lot of opportunity still for things to go horribly wrong.
This is where the mind begins to do crazy things in an ultramarathon race. Our emotions go to places we don’t normally allow ourselves to go. We smile bigger than we ever smile when we see our crew. We even get a little choked up when we see the aid station because we know we just survived an intense 16 miles of hell. It’s time to rest. It’s time to recover. It’s time to close the book on that part of the race. Many runners in past years have met their end at this very spot having given all they could give over the past 16 miles. Will we continue? Do we have more to give? Can we make it back up the hill and finish this thing?