Trace Ridge Trail Head
By Gordon Cherr
The race advertisement for the Trace Ridge Time Trial – 9 Miles, boldly announced: This race is for the well trained.” It was right to the point. Anything else would have been surplusage and unnecessary. The race flyer went on to state:
Due to the dangers of trail racing, only runners with trail running experience will be permitted. The many river crossings and steep, rocky trails make this an EXTREMELY DANGEROUS RACE- be prepared for times much slower than a road or cross- country race.
For some reason the sign up sheet asked for your best time for 10 miles…and it said in more bold letters “be honest”…now what was the connection there? One Saturday morning, ten or fifteen years ago, I chased Bill McGuire around Killearn Estates during an early edition of the Big Bucks 20K, and we passed through ten miles in 59 minutes and some change (a lot of people chased Bill that day, just like now…), but that had nothing to do with today or this mountain trail. So I lied, of course…”85 minutes”.
There were about 50 starters that afternoon at the Trace Ridge trailhead. A more motley crew had never assembled anywhere to my knowledge. No slaves to fashion here. (Dana Stetson, where were you?) I knew immediately that mountain trail runners were a different breed. One poor slob inadvertently locked his keys in his Dodge pick up (no, it wasn’t me). He also locked in his water belt and bottle, Gu, and the trail shoes of his two compatriots. Without a moment’s hesitation, he grabbed a great big boulder and smashed out the passenger side window of his truck, to the cheers of the other runners assembling for the start.
The race started on a narrow, single track trail. The runners began one minute apart to avoid the inevitable pushing and shoving at the start. The first starter was Ann Riddle. Most of you don’t know of Ann, but she happens to be the present women’s national champion at 100K. I run with Ann sometimes. She brought her baby, Emma, to the race. Everyone adores little Emma, and she comes from pure distance running stock, as Ann’s husband is also an accomplished ultra runner in his own right. Let me just say that Ann is so tough that she actually ran the very morning Emma was born. I kid you not. This writer does not make jokes about such things.
“Go” rings out (there is no starter’s pistol used out here because the deer hunters will invariably shoot back) and Ann is gone in a New York minute. Good luck, Ann, the trail is marked (sort of) with pink ribbon and white arrows of flour at critical places where other trails intersect, but it has been raining on and off for the better part of the past two days and the forest birds love the flour. (Do you remember the problems encountered by Hansel and Gretel, marking their trail with bread crumbs?) Ann starts at 4 PM. The next seven other runners are called to the starting line and then I am called at 4:09.
The first quarter mile or so is slightly downhill and soft with pine straw. What a piece of cake! Rocks, then boulders emerge, and a lot of roots and soft, mushy clay. Although there are only eight runners ahead of me, three and four foot skid marks in the soft clay are now apparent. There are also some big wet splotches where one or more of my predecessors have done a full face plant or two. I tiptoe timidly down the ever-increasing downhill slope until I reach the North Mills River.
The next three miles are relatively flat, but involve 12 separate river crossings. The rains have swollen the river to about waist high for me, the current is running sure and swift, and I suddenly recall the two forest rangers and dog standing at the start. The rangers were chewing great gobs of tobacco and spitting brown juicy streams at some of the runners they seemed to know. The dog, a moderately sized German shepherd, is wearing a black vest that says in bright orange neon letters “Rescue Dog.” The rangers were kidding me about not wearing my “swimmies.” I understand now. The rocks are slippery and the river water feels cool and refreshing until I fall in. I am not the only one. Twelve crossings later I am pleased to be in one piece and feeling pretty good, all things considered. I have also been passed by at least 5 other runners who started well behind me.
I also now recall the race flyer that stated, “The first three miles are followed by 6 miles of very demanding uphill”. This is apparent as we exit the streambed, there is nowhere to go but up. An acquaintance, Dave Curren, now passes me. So does another runner who I do not know. We run in a single file line with me bringing up the rear. By this time I am getting whiplash from runners passing me so quickly. Dave misses a turn in the trail and I know he is going the wrong way. We let Dave go for a while, the other guy just laughs and continues on. I yell at Dave to come back, but he thinks that maybe we are going the wrong way and that we are trying to trick him, and he disappears off into the woods. A short time later my head is grazed by a well thrown rock, and Dave catches up again, no worse for the wear. Soon he is gone.
The uphill pulls now come one after another. Some are so steep that you must climb hand over hand up the roots and boulders. I finally reach the (alleged) six mile marker at the single aid station and forest road 5097, affectionately known as “The Never Ending Road.” I pull myself up by grabbing a hunk of vegetation, and wipe off my face with that hand. The two race workers laugh and one says, “Hey, did you know that that was poison ivy?”
I couldn’t care less, because the next half mile involves a 500 foot climb to the road that leads to the finish. Which is to say, I must climb the height of a 30 story building in the next 800-1000 yards. I run up as far as I can, my steps become baby steps and then soon I am walking. No passing is going on here and I can see runners stretched out before me on the trail switchbacks all the way to the top. It is very quiet here except for my labored breathing. Then we are passed by one tall, skinny gazelle who runs all the way to the top and is soon gone from my sight. He is roundly cursed by everyone he passes, and we all know that such language is an honest sign of respect for his incredible effort. I also know that he has started at least 25 minutes behind me and has made up all of that time in 6-7 miles.
At some point with great enough effort, this hill, like all other hills, is crested and the race allows about two miles of downhill running to the finish. Now this downhill is no piece of cake. The trail is strewn with rocks and boulders, a misstep here and a very nasty fall will ensue. I pick my way along the trail as fast as I can. Younger, reckless runners pass me constantly. A male and female couple running together fly around me in unison. I think, that is nice, they are running together, maybe boyfriend and girlfriend. But as the trail closes down again to single file I see him give her a terrific elbow to her left shoulder, to clear her out of the way. She asks no quarter, and she gives none voluntarily either. They sprint away to an uncertain future, those two…
Eventually, the trail widens and the start/finish line almost magically appears in a small clearing. There is wild cheering and a lot of hearty laughter as each runner successfully crosses the imagined line. The cheering is for the effort made by each runners as we all appreciate what it took just to get there alive and in one piece. The laughter is for all of the mud everyone is wearing from head to toe.
I can now honestly say that I am proud to be a trail runner.