Rock….rock….rock….rock…ooh, pure dirt!….rock…rock….is that a snake?….that’s a stick…rock…….
That was at least 2/3 of the race for me and pretty well summarizes the Rothrock Challenge. In a TrailRunner article from last year, Jordan McDougal described the race as “the most technically demanding course I’ve ever run,” which I think is a pretty apt description. They could have also called it the “Head Down Race.” Not because runners tuck their heads in as they speed along the trails, but because if you try to keep moving without staring at your feet, you’ll likely end up catching a toe on a rock or root and end up somersaulting across the extended rock garden that is much of the course. Trust me, that happened to me twice on a training run several weeks ago. A more recent TrailRunner article profiling this year’s race was titled “Rothrock: Where the Crazy People Go.” I don’t know about “crazy,” but this certainly isn’t your neighborhood 5K or local Color Run. I survived the race with no injuries, but I did see a great photo on the Pa Runners Facebook page of a man with blood dripping from both knees, still with a rock-eating grin on his face.
Like Hyner, I had been waiting with child-like anticipation for the Rothrock Trail Challenge. When can I open the present? When can I open the present? I enjoy races longer than a half and that are punctuated by some steep climbs (I like walking, sue me), and Rothrock certainly fits the bill. I have run the race twice, so I knew that it is a great course, filled with great scenery, and run by a boatload of great people. I feel like I am going to blubber on how I love each race over the course of the season. But this is truly a great race.
I knew what to expect going into Rothrock. I had run the course (well, most of it) several times in the month prior to the race, and I have run up and down Spruce Gap and Kettle, and across the Mid State too many times to count as part of my training. I was hoping that muscle memory would kick in during the race and do all the hard work for me, my legs somehow pounding away across the rocks as my body and wandering mind followed. I didn’t even bother looking over the race profile. Just sharpie the aid station mileages on my arm. I also knew that the weather would be fantastic. Sunny, but no repeat of the muggy sweat-fest that was the 2013 race. The race start had been moved an hour earlier to 7 AM because of scheduling conflicts with Tussey Mountain, so that would help too.
I knew there would be rocks o’ plenty. And some steep climbs. With a few smooth places where you can open up. And maybe some more rocks. Finally, all of this would be followed by a great pre-race party with the friendliest group of trail runners ever (my experience is limited, but I stand by it).
Unfortunately, I was lulled into a false sense of security by the 20 minute drive out to Tussey, which, coupled with nearly forgetting several things (including my race vest), led to our arrival with only 30 minutes or so to spare.
Jog downhill to the start.
Realize packet pickup is at top.
Jog faster to the top.
Get checked in.
Join giant line for the bathroom.
Run to car to get shoes.
Hear the RD, Craig, start talking as I am still tying my shoes.
Probably not the way to go about a pre-race routine, but I got to the finish line in time for most of the pre-race information and, importantly, the start.
I managed to say “hi” to a bunch of the trail folks I was looking forward to seeing as I raced around and once I toed the line at the start. Thankfully, the sweat didn’t start pouring as I was just standing there like it did last year.
I had decided I was going to run my race, neither trying to chase people racing away or slowing down to hang out with people on the trails. By all means though, if we were running a similar pace, I would be social, but that wasn’t meant to be at this race. Nothing like Hyner, where I spent the vast majority of the race chatting with Jon (well, “meeting him” might be more accurate). We climbed the gravel road from the pavilion and turned ninety degrees and started running up Bear Meadows road, which stretched out the field. I did have a chance to chat with a few people, including Jeff, as I maintained a comfortable pace. I was having so much fun I didn’t even pay attention to who, or even how many people were in front of me. It would be many miles until I figured out my place.
Here is a video from the race. Lots of good footage.
Rothrock does not coddle runners. If you want to take a race easy, maybe easing into some hills mid-way through the race, Rothrock is not for you. It is like being thrown straight into the deep end of a freezing cold pool. Not a lot of time for warm up; you go straight uphill.
The route turned us uphill for a brief stint on Laurel Run Rd. before shooting us up a short, newly rock-armored Chute trail, all with only 4/5 mi. warm up on our legs. The steep section only lasted only a hundred feet or so and we then snaked around some newly built switchbacks. We were still bunched up a bit at this point, and I screwed around, waving to Adam Russell each time he was running across the switchback below me. I was hoping that I would have somebody to run with, but I was unsure what would happen since Adam was having some injury issues, David Lister wasn’t running (squishing Rothrock between Cayuga and Manitou’s Revenge would be insane), and Jon (from Hyner) was a wild card. Another local, Eric Marshall (more local than me), quickly disappeared ahead of me, so I figured I would see him towards the end or after the finish. I got to see David and Ashley’s smiling faces as they cheered on runners headed uphill.
The next chunk was the largest uphill of the whole race, Spruce Gap, with about 1100’ of gain in a mile. I continued jogging until the hill shot straight up, at which point I tried my luck at power hiking. I tried to find rocks that could act as steps, in the hope of relieving the steadily building strain on my calves. I saw one of the La Sportiva runners, Jason Bryant, up ahead of me, with at least one or two people bouncing up in front of him. I only half payed attention.
I hiked until I hit a portion of gentler uphill, jogged, and then started hiking when the incline increased. The top of Spruce Gap required one final burst of energy (and a little more lactic acid buildup) to conquer a short, but steep section.
The trail then came to a “T” with the Mid State trail, although our time on level ground was fleeting. How’s that for the start of a race?
Now for the rocky downhill. Just under two miles in, we peeled off the Mid State, which I knew we would return to later, and started the first descent down Kettle. The trail careens abruptly downhill making quick footwork critical. The top part of Kettle starts with what is almost a chute, and the rest is strewn with rocks as if some giant dumped a bucket full of rocks from the top. I tried to stay just on the edge of control, repeating in my head (jokingly?), “think like a goat, think like a goat.” I passed another runner here who was picking his way more slowly through the rocks. I would see him later.
This is what I was trying to emulate
The bottom part of Kettle isn’t quite as steep and has relatively few rocks, so I was able to open up my stride and zip down. Kettle intersected with Longberger Trail at the bottom and we hung a right. I was thankful I made it down this section without crashing and burning, ending up with, at best, scrapes goodness knows where.
While flat, Longberger was plenty technical. An abundance of rocks studding the trail made me dance around as I carefully watched my footing. Still, I felt pretty comfortable piecing together my route through the rocks and deciding where each footfall would land, “Oooh, there’s a spot, there’s another one, on that rock, on that other rock, yay dirt!” If the race atmosphere or the muscle-searing climb and precipitous descent hadn’t already jacked up your senses, these rocks would wake you up.
Longberger ended on a gravel road and I ran about 100 yards over to the Jean Aaron path. The first part of the path has some awkward little “side” bumps in the trail (the trail quickly turned to the right then back to the left), which utterly killed the good pace I had going. The bottom part of the Jean Aaron is probably the smoothest section of the whole course, with soft but firm footing under some hemlocks. The end of the trail popped me out on the road, and I ran over to the aid station just before I entered Bear Meadows (about mile 3.75). I saw no other runners during my time on Longberger or Jean Aaron.
I ran over to the aid station, grabbed a gel and a cup of water, and then headed into Bear Meadows. I started weaving my way through the towering rhododendrons. Not too long after I got onto the trail, I heard cheering, so I knew somebody was pretty close behind me. I was thinking, and hoping that it was Jon and he had decided to join me on my romp through the woods. That would be fun. I figured it wouldn’t be Adam since he was probably taking it easier (and rightfully so!). I was actually debating running slower to let (Jon?) catch up. However, it was not to be. Instead, I looked back to see the guy I passed on Kettle (Rob). He soon passed me, and I just followed along. He didn’t say much, and I initially thought he was just a competitive runner that couldn’t be bothered with the niceties of trail running. I talked to him afterwards and he was the nicest guy ever, so I clearly made a poor judgment.
Bear Meadows wasn’t as wet as last year (that year it thunder stormed the night before), but it was still plenty squishy. A number of the exceedingly wet areas have 3-4 inch diameter logs lying across to step on. While this sounded great to me, a die-hard wimpy wet-foot-avoider, they were pretty treacherous if you weren’t paying attention. I stepped on one, only to have my foot slide backwards and attempt to fold into the gap between two logs. No, foot, you do not bend that way.
We climbed out of Bear Meadows and its swampy-ness on Sand Springs Path. The climb gently built, allowing me to jog up slowly at first, before the incline rose enough I was forced to hike (or walk, call it what you will). We crossed a jeep road (which I thankfully knew was a false summit) and kept heading up.
At the very top, we went across a gravel road and started traversing the Mid-State trail, spending a lot more time on it than we had previously. The race organizers had done a fantastic job clearing the edges of the trail of vegetation, which at times is only a foot or so wide.
We entered a wide open boulder field (Indian Wells Vista/Lookout). This is one of the highlights of the race and I had been looking forward to it since the start of the race. And not just because it meant I had already finished off some hills. The views are spectacular and who doesn’t love some rock hopping? I didn’t have to follow the flags to know to stay to the left and more towards the crest of the ridge. A trail of (smaller) rocks plus some dirt cuts through some low bushes, letting you move a bit faster than if you were to bounce from rock to rock.
I could have occupied myself during the first hour of the race figuring out a strategy for what would work best in terms of pacing and effort. Instead I spent the first hour plus thinking about how I needed to pee and brainstorming ways to relieve myself without losing time, which would likely include some sort of maneuver in motion. I never came up with a suitable strategy that would not lose time or leave me in an awkward situation. Luckily, the problem seemed to solve itself as I got dehydrated.
Before starting the downhill on North Meadows Trail, I slipped by one guy that had disappeared in front of me at the start. I pulled aside at the top of North Meadows, offering the lead in our nearly wordless two-man group to Rob. I expected him to blow right by me, but he told me I had it and settled in behind me. I don’t know if that was a good or bad thing. I do know that his presence right behind me made me push it downhill, trashing my quads by the time we bottomed out on the gravel road. The uphill was a grind, but I knew there was an aid station at the end, followed by an uphill that would force us to walk.
At the 2nd aid station (mile 7.7ish), there were a bajillion Team RWB volunteers. What service! However, I only needed a quick refill on my water bottles and a gel, so I wasn’t able to take full advantage of the aid station. Nevertheless, it was fun seeing that many people out there supporting the racers and I knew the massive quantity of volunteers would be useful once more runners started coming through. Immediately after the aid station, we did a quick up on Sand Springs Path before dropping down and turning onto Charcoal Flats.
On the downhill, I found myself windmilling my arms backwards on the steep sections. Imagine a deranged person trying to backstroke every once in awhile as they run downhill. That was basically me. In retrospect, I think it was a pretty effective way to stabilize my body and adjust where my foot was going to go while in the air. It just looks a little special.
On to some flatter terrain. A few squishy sections challenged my quest to keep my feet dry, but one of the worst at least had some stepping stones I could skip across. Much of the first section was smooth and fast and I just let Rob stay in front of me and tried to keep pace. Having somebody rabbitting out in front of me definitely helped me maintain a good pace.
Some more rocks, a quick uphill that was mostly runnable, and I was on top of the ridge above Shingletown (this section actually felt like it took awhile). I passed Rob near the top as he stopped to tie his shoes and then surged forward, unsure if he would keep up. It turns out he dropped back a bit, and I didn’t see him again
The trail coursed along the top of the rocky ridge; very cool section of trail. Pretty quickly, the trail began to drop downhill towards Shingletown, gently at first before plunging abruptly downhill. I aimed for the trees on either side of the trail and used them to sop up some of my momentum. Some of the descent was so steep and treacherous that I was probably closer to tiptoeing than I was to running. One area had two sections of rope you could use to support yourself. I knew from the past that these ropes SHOULD hold, so I leaned a bit into them, risking cracking me head open if it suddenly gave way. I avoided trying to fastrope, which I knew would give me some wicked rope burns on my hands.
After the treacherous descent, I followed the trail downstream, crossed the log bridge across the stream, and then headed over to the aid station (mile 12.5).
Somebody at the aid station said, “Nice job, Ian!” which confused me for a second because I had no idea who might know me out there. Turns out it was Ben Mazur, who is the RD for a number of local races (such as Dirty Kiln and Rock’n the Knob). I picked up some food and water before moving out. I walked as I scarfed down the food before running up to the base of the ridge that I needed to scale.
There was no trail at this point, just a bunch of boulders climbing upwards with flagging pointing the way. To be fair, there were a smattering or roots and trees. I enjoyed the climb and the chance to use something other than my legs to propel myself forward. The climb is plenty “technical,” but technical going up isn’t too bad. Speed + falling = broken runner, and there definitely wasn’t much velocity on my part on the climb. I glanced back and couldn’t see anybody gaining on me, but who knew what would happen. All in all, while it felt like it took me forever to scale the spine of the ridge, I think it only took 10 minutes, maybe 15 at most, so it was over pretty quickly. I had run into a rattlesnake at the top when I was out on a training run with Jon, so I stayed pretty attentive, imagining many a stick to be a snake.
Here is where I got confused. Like I said, I had run this as a training run. However, I didn’t actually follow the complete route on the website and couldn’t remember where the race had gone in the past. In reality, even if I had run the route on the Rothrock page in full, I still would have been confused during the race. From my understanding, the course has changed. Basically, the course drops you down off the ridge that you were on and you end up spending a decent chunk of time running along the bottom of the ridge on the lower trail. In the past, more time was spent on the ridge, which is the way I had run the course earlier this year. This confused me a bit and I think made it a bit more of a slog because I was tired and just didn’t know what to expect. Still, I had the potential to actually find somebody in front of me to keep me going. And, what are you going to do? I’m out there to have fun.
And, I actually found somebody. First, I passed a guy that was just out for a run, headed in the same direction. No bib there. He told me I was about five minutes behind somebody. I did the mental math and figured that guy was out of striking distance. However, a couple minutes later, I came across a volunteer at a turn who informed me I was a little over a minute behind the next runner. Huh? I think the first guy didn’t take his speed into account. The volunteer told me it was Eric.
I caught up with Eric not that much later, and it seemed his pace had slackened. Shoulders hunched a bit, he seemed tired. I said “hi” and followed along as his pace quickened. Guess we were speeding up. I knew where I was at this point, so I had that “getting-close-to-the-end” mental boost. I followed until the next aid station. I wanted to keep things moving, so I didn’t linger.
I crossed the road and worked to knock out the last uphill. Maybe somebody else was still ahead? I looked back a couple times, but didn’t see Eric. I hiked, I jogged, I hiked, I jogged, all the way to the top. Time for the home stretch.
The last downhill is plenty technical at the top, although it at least isn’t as steep as some earlier sections. I tried to speed down as much as possible. I came back down the rock-armored trail we had come up, hit a bit of trail, and then onto the road.
One last paved section before I got to relax and eat. Well, plus the gravel road we had come up in the first place. Through all this I was hopeful I would see somebody up ahead, but it wasn’t to be.
I checked behind me several times and saw nobody. Thank goodness, I didn’t need a sprint to the finish. I just raced myself and the clock to the end.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the post race festivities Rothrock has to offer. Before grabbing food, I went on a shakeout run with Jason Bryant. I had a great time talking to him about the history of trail racing, running for La Sportiva, and his training. Goodness knows his experience runs infinitely deeper than mine.
As usual, it was great to chat with fellow trail running friends after the race. The food was also great, with BBQ chicken and baked beans. The chocolate milk really hit the spot. Running plus food; I was a happy camper.
Wonderful race. But I could have slept in; I already knew that. Just because I came out of the race unscathed doesn’t mean I am out of the woods; I know those rocks are just biding their time to trip me.
Numbers: 3rd, 2:53:16
Shoes: New Balance MT1010V2
Race vest: Ultimate direction SJ (I need to write a review, I love this thing)
Shorts: Pearl Izumi Infinity