“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
That quote, purported to be from Jack Kerouac, was on my mind as I prepared for and ran the Big Turtle 50-miler in Morehead, Ky. The April 22 race was my second at the distance and my biggest challenge to date. The out-and-back course had 8,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.
The event was one of a half-dozen or so in area coordinated by Next Opportunity Events. They held packet pickup the night before the race in the same location as the start-finish area. Packet pickup was easy and a brief meeting provided helpful instructions to runners in the 50-mile, 50K and 10-mile distances.
We returned the next morning where we gathered inside, waiting for the announcement to head outside about 50 feet to the start line. This convenience — inside bathrooms and a short walk to free parking — made race morning a breeze.
Throughout the pre-race buildup, the race director communicated effectively with participants. He produced weekly five-minute videos, a combination of information and promotion. The website and event guide were helpful in getting me prepared for what to expect.
But beyond that, I was impressed by a request I made. Due to my Celiac Disease and the need for calories during a 10- to 12-hour run, I was concerned about what aid station fare I would be able to tolerate. The race director made sure that there was gluten-free bread for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the midway point.
All of the volunteers were helpful and friendly, especially the nice woman who made me two PB&Js — she was happy to make a third but two was all I needed. From my personal sandwich maker to the race director to everyone else involved, they were helpful, friendly and positive throughout the race.
Hills and more hills
Now about the race.
This was the second year for the Big Turtle, which starts on the Morehead State University campus before climbing into the mountains. After a half-mile uphill run to the trailhead, racers continued climbing a single-track trail for about 1.5 miles. It’s the hardest part of the course and we were all relieved to get it out of the way early. (A neat attention to detail is the elevation chart is reflected in the Big Turtle logo — the turtle’s shell.)
After that it’s a mix of single-track, dirt roads and a brief run on a two-way road before connecting to another section of trail. During one dirt road section, I chatted with Shane, an Australian native now living in Kentucky. As we navigated a series of rolling hills, I remarked that I didn’t get to practice on hills because I live in a flat part of Indiana.
“These aren’t hills,” Shane said.
To his point, steeper climbs and descents awaited us. While there were long runnable sections, there was a constant change in grade, some steeper sections than others. The dirt paths had a mix of small and medium stones, and there were a few minor stream crossings. Nothing more than ankle deep.
16,000 feet of elevation change
I was hoping to hit the turnaround point at 5 hours, and made it in about 5:10. While the race started around 40 degrees, it fairly quickly got to the mid-60s.
Because of the difficulty in getting from a road to the trail between miles 17 and 25, there were no aid stations between those points. The race directors made this clear ahead of time, so we were able to fill up on water before leaving 17 and then 25. Still, it was a lot warmer than I had run in recently — a theme of springtime races.
With my water bottles full, one PB&J in my belly and another one to go, I headed back out for the second half. At this point, I was feeling pretty good but knew that there was still a long way to go. This was especially true for me because — due to a foot injury — my longest training run had been just over 23 miles, and I had never before ran a race with more than 6,000 feet of elevation change. This one had more than 16,000 feet of change.
The second half of the race involved a lot of walking due to the hills, wobbly legs and the warmth. I ran when I could, hiked the hills and kept moving.
In addition to the aid station at the halfway point, there were others at roughly Miles 5/45, 10/40, 15/35 and 17/33. The aid stations had the usual offerings — bananas, oranges, watermelon, pickles, water, Coke, chips, cookies, etc. The two closest in proximity were separated by a steep climb – down to the aid station and back up, The 50-milers would make that journey twice.
While the course was generally well marked, the return section was lacking in some areas. Between Miles 35 and 40, I missed two turns. One was totally on me because I had my head down but the other one was not marked at all. Fortunately, in both cases, about the time I started looking around and questioning whether I was in the right place, fellow runners called out to me. I figured my two missteps only cost me about a half-mile (free running!).
I definitely felt some elation when I started the 2-mile descent toward the finish line, pushing hard down the mountain. When I saw the campus road come into view, I knew that I was minutes away from finishing.
Another runner ahead of me paused in the road, not sure where to proceed. I knew the general direction but there was no signage or ribbons to follow through campus. Lucky for us, a passerby pointed to a sidewalk which looked familiar and brought us around a bend to within site of the finishing area.
Even with my two earlier brief off-course transgressions, I move up from the halfway point. By my count, I picked up eight spots in the second half of the race. The official results show me finishing at 11:50:55, 30th overall out of 78 and 11th of 24 in my age group.
The finisher’s medal is handmade, which is another super nice touch. The race director was at the finish line to greet the runners. The food at the finish line was essentially the same as what aid stations offered. I ate what I could and waited just a few minutes for my drop bag to return from the aid station.
Overall it was a great race and experience. Not sure if I will ever do another Next Opportunity race again but I did appreciate all of the little things that the team did for the runners.
And that brings me to my next opportunity: the Ultra Race of Champions 100K, a point-to-point course which has slightly more elevation change than Big Turtle. Time to start thinking about climbing that goddamn mountain.