Also known as Amanda & Jen’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad race.
How we felt throughout much of the race.
Okay, I should start by saying that the above statement is an exaggeration. Kettletown is put on by Trail 2 Trail Series. Their motto is “We don’t do easy. You won’t forget it.” That perfectly summed up our experience at yesterday’s race.
I wouldn’t say that we went into yesterday untrained, but I’ve definitely been better prepared for races in the past. A stressful 2 months of working, job hunting, and dealing with kids’ spring sports schedules had taken it’s toll and I was already exhausted on the drive up to the race on Friday. A poor night’s sleep and the realization that I had left my hydration pack at home did not improve anything, nor did the rain that showed up out of nowhere on Saturday morning. By the time we hit Kettletown State Park, we were already rethinking our plan to run the 50k in an unknown location.
Kettletown is an unusual event. With five different distance options, it caters to a wide variety of runners, who had the choice of signing up for the 5k, 10k, 20k, 30k, or 50k. We realized at packet pick-up that the vast majority of the runners were signed up for the 5k or 10k options, with only 15 runners registered for the 50k. In an attempt to allow the distance runners to get onto the trail without a big bottleneck, they sent the 30k and 50k runners off five minutes before the rest of the field. While this did let us access the trail without any back-up, it made for frustrating and dangerous conditions a mile in, when we were quickly set upon by the fast moving lead runners, some of whom appeared to have no idea of how to politely pass others on a trail. We quickly agreed that we would have preferred the early bottleneck to the frustrating feeling of constantly having people breathing down our necks.
The actual course began on a couple hundred feet of paved road before turning right onto the trail. The entire first half mile went straight up hill. Not wanting to walk so early in the race, we pushed on running much farther than we usually would have under similar conditions. As a result, we reached the first mile completely winded and demoralized. I had a hard time both catching my breath and banishing the negative thoughts running through my brain. It was not an auspicious start to the race.
The race course followed a rough figure-eight pattern, looping back through the start somewhere between 2-2.5 miles before curving back out on a longer loop that ended up back at the start/finish after approximately 6.2 miles. Of course, this meant that we should have run the entire course five times to reach our ultra finish. I must admit that I was not really a fan of the first section of the loop. Between the long uphills and all of the people on the trail, the first section was just one big exercise in frustration. We passed through the midsection and continued back out on the course.
Try crossing something this wide while being passed by other, faster runners. Yeah, that actually happened on loop number one.
The early part of this back loop instantly won me over. We crossed a lovely wooden bridge before hiking up and over a variety of large rocks that ran along a creek with numerous waterfalls. The sound of the babbling water was beautiful, and was a great reminder that we run these races to celebrate the peace of time spent in nature. About a half-mile in, the trail crossed a road and headed back uphill, away from the creek. Along this next section, we actually encountered some decent runnable track, although the endless rocks and roots still required a great attention to detail to keep our footing. After a lengthy, winding climb, we suddenly found ourselves on a large rock with a beautiful view of Lake Zoar below. We took a moment to take a photo and take in the stunning vista before returning to the trail and continuing our climb up. The trail actually included several decent climbs, including a few that forced us to go hand over foot up some large boulders, until we reached the highest point of the trail a little over 4.5 miles in. Fortunately we headed back downhill for most of the remaining miles. The last mile was probably my favorite, with a fairly smooth runnable track, followed by a return to the creek and the waterfalls.
We realized partway through the first lap that it was going to be nearly impossible for us to stay on our feet and still stay on pace for an 8-hour finish. While it was disheartening to decide that we were giving up our ultra goal, it was also a bit of a relief, as it allowed us to back off the pace slightly. We crossed the finish line of our first loop in 85 minutes, stopped briefly to grab some fluids and a few bites of food, and then quickly headed back out.
We were relieved to find that our second loop was shockingly empty compared to our first pass through the course. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough to lift my mood on the first part of the course. For more than a mile, I fought with pessimistic thoughts, reminding myself that its happened at some point in every longer race that I’ve run. I usually make it much farther than 7 miles before being plagued by such negativity, but I tried to put that behind me and just enjoy the course and the favorable weather. Jen decided that we should use the second loop as an opportunity to take photos that would hopefully show how challenging the course was, in an attempt to make us feel a little better about giving up our distance goal. It was a good plan, giving us a fun distraction for awhile, and allowing us to vent some of our frustration in the shots.
Giving a giant “thumbs down” to the endless rocks that we traveled over along the trail.
Our moods lifted for a bit in the middle of the loop, but as we neared the end, we were both dragging quite a bit. It was only sheer stubbornness and the desire to return home with more than a half marathon finish, that got us back out onto the course for a third and final loop. The first section was again tough, but as we passed through the middle one more time, I felt my spirits begin to lift. It was wonderful to realize that the next time we crossed that bridge, we would be staring down at the finish line. As we climbed the top of our first big hill, and came once again upon the beautiful vista, we actually paused enough to step off the course and take a seat looking out over the lake. I can’t recall ever doing that before, but it was a special moment, and one that was definitely needed that far into the race. After documenting the moment with one more photo, we set back up the trail to finish out the race.
Stopped and looking out at this scene one more time was the highlight of the race for us.
Coming back along the creek one final time was a great feeling, as was crossing the finish line and announcing that we were done for the day. After helping ourselves to some fantastic watermelon, we checked in with one of the volunteers, who shared that she thought there were about 8 runners still on the course attempting the 50k. It turns out her estimate was pretty accurate, as seven runners managed to finish the 50k distance at the end of the day. Thirteen others, including the two of us, crossed the line for official 30k finishes. I must admit that it did lift my spirits a bit when I learned that of the 158 total finishers at the race, only 20 people made it to the 30k mark or greater. A true testament to how challenging the course actually was. While I can’t say that we plan to return to Kettletown in the future, we did appreciate the beauty that we found out on the trails, and the chance to spend another day together exploring a new park.
Just a few more photos to highlight some of the beautiful, but challenging terrain that we traversed throughout the day.