Earlier this week, I was struggling to decide what race to do this weekend. There were several quality trail running events in the area, including: Lost Turkey Trail 50K and 50 Miler, Appalachian Front Trail 50K, Run with the Deer Flies 25K, and this race, the Kanawha Trace 50K, 25K, and 10K.
My wife and I argued throughout the week on how to appropriately pronounce “Kanawha” because she claims the “wh” is silent and I refuse to admit this is possible. What do you think? If you think the “wh” is silent then I don’t want to hear from you. Otherwise, please get in touch.
On Friday, I finally committed to entering the 25K at the Kanawha Trace. I knew I wouldn’t be able to push a 50K and be happy with the result. In the end, I’m glad that I decided to do the 25K. For a while now I’ve wanted to get into one of the southern WV trail races that WV Mountain Trail Runners has a hand in, so I was expecting a well-run event.
I wasn’t interested in staying overnight nearby so the 9:30 start time of the 25K allowed me to drive in on the same day. The 50K group had already started at 7:30. Packet pick-up was at the Arrowhead Boy Scout Camp. Even having signed up late the night before, the crew had my packet prepped. They’re on the ball. The race shirts were great quality and a nice shade of royal blue. No weird colors here!
The logistics were a little confusing, since I’m not from the area, in that there was a shuttle bus ride to the official start line about 4 miles down the road from the camp, so you still need to account for that extra time required. And mentally prepare yourself for a slightly muggy school bus ride. Being late July in these Appalachian hills, thunderstorms and humidity rule.
The start is in a residential area of Barboursville, WV and requires just over one mile of paved road running before getting to the real trails. When I finally arrived at those trails, I received a big punch in the face. The course immediately begins climbing over 300 feet in about three-fourths of a mile. The hillsides are steep in that region and require frequent switchbacks to the keep the task even somewhat reasonable.
Having started with the 10K runners, I had to make it a point to run my own controlled race and not get caught up in competing with the high school boys doing less than half of my distance. Even still, I watched several of them fade back to me in the first three miles because there is just so much climbing early on. And they probably aren’t accustomed to racing distances beyond their 5K cross country meets. I remember those days. The days before I was old and #dadstrong.
It was much easier to keep track of the people in each event because of the varied race number colors. The 10K folks had yellow while the 25K’ers had orange. The 50K racers had white numbers but the only time I encountered them they were heading the opposite direction from me. These colors coincided with the flagging and signs used along the course, minimizing possible confusion. Smart.
Apparently it had rained the night prior because much of the course was wet. At the bottom of one early descent, I watched a 10K racer bite it right in front of me when he stepped onto a chunk of wet, filmy sandstone. I nearly stepped on him. He didn’t stay down too long, but that had to hurt.
Just as I was arriving at the second aid station at mile five, I downed the banana I had been carrying, which the crew managed to catch in this photo. Intense, right?! Well, anyway, check out that sweet piece of singletrack.
Mile 5 marks the split of the 25K and 10K races. Shortly thereafter I descended a steep and slick ravine on paths that resembled game trails. The trail was nothing less than challenging and ultimately resulted in my butt hitting the muddy ground. As I reached the next valley and wooden bridge crossing, I came upon two beagle dogs in the trail. They were apparently scared of me and started running away on the singletrack. They ran in front of me for what seemed like a mile, serving as an unexpected pace crew and welcome distraction. Thanks beagle dog crew! Hopefully they went back home, wherever that may be.
It wasn’t too long after that where I encountered a less helpful dog. It was a sizable mutt somewhere along a gravel road. I thought I was going to have to defend myself as it was lunging, snarling, and displaying its white teeth. Crazily yelling at it must have worked. Good riddance.
There was rarely a time in this course that I felt like I was running in a valley or along a ridgeline for long - the terrain was frequently fluctuating. This race has a little of every possible scenario: long steep climbs and descents, short steep climbs and descents, long gradual climbs and descents, gravel road, paved road, wooden bridges, singletrack, off-camber, game paths, clay mud, sandy mud, doubletrack, switchbacks, freshly mown grass paths, gas line right-of-way, rock drops, giant rock overhangs, cliffs, large loose rocks, timber roads, several log jumps, and a couple of local residents’ yards.
I went off course slightly in two different locations but for the most part I found it to be very well marked. The color coding was super helpful and the signage at intersections plentiful.
As fatigue set in, I began catching myself wanting to hike on some of the climbs where I would normally trot slowly, so I knew I needed to bring in some calories soon. But I also realized I had only packed a banana and a gel, underestimating the toll of these crazy climbs. It became clear why the total elevation gain of the 50K and 25K are only 1000 feet different: there’s a ton of climbing in the beginning of the 25K course. Taking the gel too early would be just as disastrous as taking it too late.
It was during mile 9 that I ran under a really neat rock overhang where I was imagining a family of American Indians several hundred years ago seeking shelter from a summer thunderstorm. And eating. Mostly because that’s what I wanted to do. Good thing there’s an aid station at mile 10.
Taking my sweet time at the 10-mile aid station in favor of surviving what had clearly become a toughman challenge, I took a gel with several cups of water and put a cup of ice in my hat. That mix made me feel like running again for a couple miles but I was definitely feeling heavy fatigue by the time mile 13 came around. Thankful that the climbs at this point were brief as I rolled along a ridge, the focus became holding my technique together and trying to use the terrain advantage to negative split. I knew there should be a big descent not long before the finish.
As I finished that descent and the end of mile 15 approached, I must have let my guard down a little. There was a brief climb and a quick descent toward the Mud River where I stepped onto a large, wet, cambered rock, only to fall hard onto my right wrist and leg. Unlike the first fall, that one hurt and took some of my skin with it. I don’t usually fall in trail races and now this was number two for the day. Clearly it’s a bit of a technical course and the recent rain had made it more treacherous.
The low blood sugar bonk had kicked in by the time the last mile came along. My form had degraded as a result but I knew from the elevation profile that there were no more climbs or descents. Please, no more! Stubbornly focused on keeping my core stable and arms from flailing, I could finally make out the pond at the Boy Scout camp through the trees.
In the end it was 16 miles in 2:19:01 to win the 25K race and barely set a new course record. The new record was my ultimate goal, so I was very happy with that result. Plus, my wife won the women’s 10K! Congratulations to her! Maybe she will start saying the "wh" in Kanawha.
The volunteers greeted me at the line with this wild, wood finisher medal and custom crock.
As usual, the WVMTR folks put on a great event. Check it out next year if you can. I’m sure most of them will never read this but events like this are successful because of the volunteers and race directors. Thank you!