Canary in the Cave 25K Race Report

I’ve wanted to travel down to Fayetteville, WV for the Canary in the Cave 25k for the last couple years, but I just hadn’t made it a priority. Being a WV Mountain Trail Runners event, it automatically had potential to be a quality event. Little did I realize what I had been missing. It is now in my top three all-time races.

The weekend weather lately has been superb for running. This time around it was sunny with a cloudless sky and about 30*. Entry to this event was small at 108 pre-registrants and just 79 finishers. I imagine that would increase if people knew exactly what fun these trails are and the stellar views they could find along the way.

The majority of the trails are wooded singletrack. This time of year it can be hard to tell exactly where a path is under all of those leaves, so you have to be vigilant to stay on the course at times. That’s where it is nice to be near someone from the area and just let them lead. I did inadvertently go off course briefly twice, even though it was generally very well marked.

The terrain was rolling, up until mile 9. Early on, the Fayetteville Trail leads into the Boy Scout Camp Arrowhead trails. Those trails are actually designed for mountain biking but are really awesome to run. Off-camber surfaces are minimized because the trails have been cut into the sides of the hills. Even with all of the leaves, I realized that the trails were primarily packed dirt with minimal roots and rocks.

It’s very twisty, which I love. It brings the pace down a little but is so much more distracting than a straight line. Any short descent is quickly matched with a little rolling uphill. They have produced a rollercoaster-like feel with the quick ups and downs. Even more like a coaster would be the brief sense of weightlessness while launching off the small dirt mounds.

During the early Arrowhead trails, perhaps around mile 4, another runner started nipping at my heels. I would throw various surges to get a feel for where he might drop off. It seemed like the descents and more technical sections weren’t his forte. He wasn’t going anywhere on the climbs though.

Coming off the Camp Arrowhead trails we descended on a fantastic old dirt and gravel access road that has been carved into the steep pitch of the New River Gorge. I will not forget this part, from miles 10 to 13.  You could seriously fly on the upper part. The sun hadn’t hit in here yet so it was very chilly. I took in a couple glimpses of the gorge at this time but couldn’t stare too long as there were definitely loose, washed-out areas. It’s the kind of old forest road that most people would be really nervous to drive on. To your left is a very steep drop off, older growth trees, and otherwise nothing to stop you from rolling hundreds of yards down into the ravine. To your right are absolutely humongous gray sandstone boulders, bigger than semi-trucks.

I used the early steepest part of the gorge descent to put a gap between me and my chaser. But, despite my efforts, he caught back on when the decline below became more shallow.

Having never done the event, I didn’t realize the intensity of the final climb and just out of bad timing I started to eat a gel as we rounded the turn to the Kaymoor mine where I knew we would begin to ascend. Crap.

I was disappointed to see the end of the descent, not only because my mouth was full of gel, but because I wanted to get even closer to the railroad tracks and the New River that I had just viewed from 500 feet higher up the mountainside. The river is still another 500 feet lower than the turn. The race director informed me the original race course did descend further but mud slides haven’t been kind to the lower portion of the Kaymoor Trail.

One-third of the way up what is known as the Kaymoor Miners Trail, the person who had been pushing me for the last 9 miles began to absolutely crush the quick and steep upward scramble. I quickly realized this was a high schooler. Not again! A repeat of last weekend. We climbed multiple flights of wooden and rock stairs while trying to get up this 0.4 mile-long beast. It was hands on knees hiking for much of it and occasionally hands on rocks and trees for stability. Thank goodness it wasn’t any longer.

I had red-lined so hard that I struggled to recover and regain the previous pace at the top. The final portion was a revisit of the first three miles of the course, now in the opposite direction. It hurt much more now though. Boy was I happy to see the “1 mile to the finish” sign. I couldn’t even see the high schooler anymore as he maintained pace very well.

Despite being a youngin’ in the trail running world, Jacob Birurakis ran this course like a seasoned veteran. He was the runner-up at the WV XC State Championship for AAA this year, which might explain his ability to go pretty darn hard up a climb. Nathan Bonham led from the start and destroyed the previous course record, completing the course in under two hours.

I ended up with 15.6 miles on my Garmin with 2014 feet of climbing. Others had as much as 17 miles on their devices. The director reported the course is around 16.5 miles. It’s a strange sensation but I felt like I descended much more than I climbed. Nobody is going to complain about that. My only complaint is that this isn’t a 50K where we could have done two laps of that beautiful course!

Participants received a multifunctional headwear/neckwear/wristwear item and some unforgettable views. Proceeds benefitted the local 4-H group and the WVMTR.