If you wanted to run perfect trail conditions, the ACE Adventure Center outside Oak Hill, WV was the place to be this weekend. It was plenty sunny, hot, and humid, so there was no shortage of sweat dripping from the brim of my hat and a higher than average forecast for nipple chaffage, but that’s what you expect for August, isn't it?
When I had last attended this event two years ago, packet pickup took a very long time and as a result, the race start was delayed. Things were much improved this year. My packet pick up was completed in about 10% of the time it took me in 2015, which was a ton less stressful.
Despite driving nearly 3 hours, it was easy to make the trip to Oak Hill on race morning because the race didn’t start until 10:00. I know this bothers some runners, but I think it’s favorable if you like the additional challenge of running in the heat or maybe have an upcoming event approaching that will be in the heat. As we started, the temperature was around 70 degrees. Most of the course is tree shaded so the temperature in the woods likely stayed under 80 degrees for another hour or two.
Charleston runner Clay Evans started out hard from the gun. And then I realized I hadn’t started my music. Fortunately we started on a short stretch of gravel road before entering singletrack so there was a moment to get those favorite jams going. I train with music about 25% of the time but in short competitive events such as this, I thrive on incremental doses of upbeat and occasionally vulgar rap and alternative rock. Music is a legal ergogenic aid. Just use only one headphone so you can hear folks coming, okay?
Clay and I separated from the other runners quickly, switching the lead back and forth from time to time. Then he told me he was running the other simultaneous event - the 8.5-mile run. I briefly considered letting him drift away from me as we headed uphill but figured any amount of hanging at the quicker pace could help me get closer to my goal of breaking 1:30:00 in the half marathon. As we neared mile 2, still climbing, he began pulling away from me at a pace I wasn’t willing to attempt, regardless of event. I wasn’t expecting to be just a couple beats away from my maximum heart rate. Sure hope he wasn’t kidding about being in the other race. Seemed like a good time to take in a glimpse of this view:
After hitting the high point of that first and longest climb, I started recovering a bit and gradually came back up to Clay and coasted on by him. I could tell it was going to be a good day by the brief amount of time it took to recover from that hard effort and by the impressive number of birds cheering for me.
The best course description here would be “rolling.” It was actually really fun to hit some of the rollers out there, which reminded me of a rollercoaster on several occasions. Gain enough speed on the downhills and you can coast part of the way up the next climb before it feels too effortful.
Most of the course is double track the width of an ATV (or four-wheeler, if you prefer). Some of it is wider forest road double track. There’s probably just a couple total miles of singletrack. For the most part it is non-technical as there aren’t many roots or rocks. Some sections are wide mown grassy paths. Overall this makes it a road runner’s trail race. Many of the trails would be a good introduction to trail running.
Much of the time I was paranoid of rolling my left ankle to the point of spraining as I had done in 2015. With the trails typically maintaining a clockwise direction around the mountain, there is a frequent camber to the trail that keeps your left side on the lower side of the hill. I remembered the exact point where I rolled it previously so I did what any sane person would do at that section: I slowed down.
The footing on the trail was typically firm and predictable as it hadn’t rained recently. The course circumnavigates the mountain top, never descending or climbing for long periods, so I’m sure that helps keep them dry as well. Trail maintenance had cleared out a couple of recently fallen trees. But somehow they didn’t clear out the snakes. I’m not asking much, am I?
After topping the highest point on the course, and passing heavy equipment that you don't normally see on a trail run, there’s a fast grassy forest road descent. Nearly to the bottom, I caught a glimpse of a shiny black tubular creature in the grass and reflexively jumped away like an Appalachian kangaroo. I heard the snake jerk, probably because I scared it as much as it scared me but I didn’t bother stopping to ask it. I doubt it would have suddenly struck at a kangaroo because they can't eat kangaroos. I told the next aid station worker about it but I don’t think she was impressed.
The left hip flexors tightened a bit by mile 8, the climbs hurt more, and my general form deteriorated as the thigh muscles became heavier. I thought the course was a little short based on my old GPS data so I tried to remind myself that it was really only 20 more minutes of pushing. Rounding is always a useful tactic for time and distance mid-competition. It’s a great way to lie to yourself about the distance remaining because you’ll forget about it in 30 seconds anyway. And there is a ton of descending in the final 1/3 of the race so I just needed to quit whining. Although you don’t want to underestimate the final climb to the finish.
Bombing the final grassy section of double track descent I spied yet another shiny black tubular creature less than a squirrel’s length from my feet. Is there a reptile convention here this weekend? Where can I get my tickets? This one was stretched across the major width of Erskine Trail. There was no option to change direction at that very moment because: 1.) there was a giant drop off to the left, 2.) a steep embankment to the right, and 3.) my pace was roughly 6:30/mile. Good thing the kangaroo legs were warmed up by the earlier snake. Definitely the first time I knowingly jumped over a fully outstretched snake! It’s really okay if I make it another 23 years of running before that happens again.
I became a little panicked near the finish as I popped out onto the final road climb because I thought the next course marking I was to follow pointed toward some newly built trails on the opposite side of the road. I lost time wandering around in the woods there for over a minute while trying to find the next marking only to realize the course really did just climb up the road, just as it did in 2015. Wah wah wah. No race ever goes perfectly but I was bummed to not achieve my goal of breaking 1:30, coming in at 1:31:11.
Apologies to the young woman finishing her 8.5 miler that didn’t see me sprinting to the finish line and probably had her life flash before her eyes as I grabbed her to keep us both from going down in a burning heap of human shrapnel.
Course summary: Minimal climbing (average 100 feet/mile, 1300 feet total), generally non-technical with occasional loose rocky sections but no rooty sections, slight but frequent off-camber, minimal singletrack at approximately 1.5 miles total, no more than a couple hundred yards of pavement, minimal muddy sections and no crazy swampy sections, primarily wide and maintained ATV width trail, about 0.5 mile of gravel road, no drop-offs, 100% runnable, generally well marked, fun course overall