This turned out to be a very interesting event this year. After a taste of warmer spring weather for the past couple weeks, Mother Nature changed her mind and dumped a few inches of snow in the area on Thursday into Friday. With Coopers Rock State Forest being at the higher elevations of around 2000 feet, the snow and colder temperatures stuck around for the race on Saturday.
At race start, the temp was about 29 degrees and the woods had a varying 2-5 inch blanket of snow. I can’t recall competing in this much snow since the Snowflake Chase 5 Miler in McHenry, MD, some 20 years ago. Last year we had the perfect dry, cool conditions. I guess you never know what spring will bring around here from one year to the next.
The 50K course begins with a 1.5 mile road section and a simultaneous half-marathon start, which does cause a slight confusion for placement estimation. Fellow 50K runner Travis Simpson started off harder and faster than I typically ever do, even if it were a marathon. But that’s just his style.
As a result, I exited the pavement as the second 50K’er and wondered how big of a gap I would have to close for that first position. It certainly took a while. I finally saw Travis pop up just before the 6-mile point as we entered the Mont Chateau trail, where the half marathoners split off, but it took me until mile 7.6 to catch and pass him at the bottom of that trail. Here, next to Cheat Lake at 650-700 feet of elevation, there wasn’t a bit of snow.
The lake happens to be the turnaround point of a short out and back where we began a 1300 foot climb back to the top of the state forest. It didn’t take long while climbing back up this overlapping portion to pass the 3rd through 7th place 50K runners. There must have been good technical runners in that group. Travis finally didn’t seem too interested in pushing at this point so a gap formed between us, although it shrunk back down as we approached Rock City.
We ran Rock City together and then I separated from him again as we hit the Underlook Trail (a challenging world of boulders, this time covered in snow!) It is on this trail that you have to hike and climb quickly on large rocks that are surrounded by other, even larger rocks. All are gradually breaking away from the cliffside every couple hundred years. Rhododendron abound and provide a saving handle sometimes. The footing was so uncertain that you have to constantly watch where your feet are landing. At one point this focus caught up to me because my peripheral vision was also slightly inhibited by the brim of my cap and I managed to ram my left shoulder straight into one of the boulders at full fast hiking speed. Ouch. Five minutes later I cracked my right knee off of a boulder. More ouch.
I entered Aid Station 2 at mile 10 feeling pretty well despite playing geology tackle. Following this portion, we do another out and back to the Raven Rock overlook. That design quickly lets you know the gap to the next competitor - and it wasn’t far. Maybe 60-90 seconds. I tried my best to remain steady on that section and approaching the McCollum Campground as it was still too early to push the pace.
Then we hit Aid Station 3. I checked my watch and noted that my time was basically on par with my time from last year. This was a bit of a problem considering the course was perfectly dry last year and this year it was a muddy, slick, snowy mess. Somehow I was still climbing well.
I headed out to the Powerline trail off Clay Run. As I reached the top of that mile-long climb I could still see Travis trailing me by a similar time gap. Isn’t he getting tired yet? But I knew we had had similar performances in 50Ks in the last couple years.
Returning back to the same aid station again, I began the not so fun trip on the Roadside Trail toward the front entrance of the state forest. It reminded me of running on horse trails. The many giant footprint divots in the snow had melted partially yesterday and must have frozen again overnight, creating some nasty, unsure footing.
In some ways I was happy to arrive at the paved Henry Clay iron furnace roadway to get off of that trail. I tried to eat the banana I was carrying but it had frozen nearly solid so that didn’t quite work as planned. Unfortunately, midway down the road Travis came barreling by me. I might have tried to hang on if this was a 5K, but it wasn’t, so I watched him gradually drift to a quarter-mile lead.
It was at this point that I *slightly* regretted helping Travis with his hamstring strain injury earlier this week with dry needling in my clinic. Next time Travis, I may use more of a “sham” treatment technique if we are going to be in the same race that week. I’m kidding, of course.
When we hit the Advanced Ski Trail I started to reel him back in again. We chatted a little and then I separated from him again down the Intermediate Ski Trail. Making it to the next aid station at the frontmost parking area, Travis came in just 20-30 seconds behind me. I was starting to feel like crap and I don’t think he was feeling great either. We coasted along the new swampland known as Scott Run trail. My quads were clearly unsure of their function. Travis surged on me again, I fell back about 5 seconds but then caught him once again up the final technical climb.
Having seen his stellar road running abilities, I knew I was in trouble with the design of the final portion of this course. Travis threw another surge as we exited the final aid station and entered Roadside Trail again. He has too much raw power for me to counter on those flats! I tried to stay strong, but without any more climbs or technical sections, my ability to catch him again became substantially inhibited.
He would end up taking the first spot while I came in a short distance back. He executed that final part very well. Over the entire event we were never really more than two minutes apart from each other. Third place, Aaron Horrell, didn’t take too long afterward to come across the finish line either. Three of us coming in well under 5 hours in those slick conditions was quite surprising. And as much as I would like to have won, I was really happy to see an individual that I helped with a new injury overcome the odds and run to their fullest potential.
Looks like there were 40 total finishers in the 50K, although I’m pretty sure we started with closer to 50. It was definitely a day to test limits.
This is the second year for the event, and I thought the course markings were even better than last year’s, though I am a little biased for having known the course already. This year for entering we received “A Guide to Coopers Rock State Forest” along with the SweatVac brand synthetic shirts, which run a little on the large side. Last year we had the same shirts but received a durable map of the forest lands. Unique swag.
I definitely must thank the volunteers who braved the cold for hours to come out to help with this event. It’s not comfortable and not easy to stay warm when you can’t move around much. We all appreciate the ability to get food and drink in at the aid stations.
Here are the results on the Coopers Rock Foundation site.
- Average power: 228 watts
- Average pace: 8:57/mile
- Elevation gain: 4967 feet
- Amount of time climbing: 2:15:05
- Breakfast - egg and bacon on english muffin and coffee, trail mix, frequently sipping water all morning
- Thirty minutes prior to start - one banana
- In race - 5 Gu gels, 1 Gu stroopwafel, ½ banana, ½ peanut butter and jelly sandwich, 2 pickle spears, 2 pieces boiled potato with salt, 1 cookie, about 40 oz. water, about 8 oz. Coke/Dr. Pepper sodas
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