The Appalachian Mountains are old. I don’t know exactly how old but that’s OK because no one really expects me to know. Geologists, who absolutely should know, do not know either. They say that the Appalachians are between 420 and 496 million years old. I would be willing to forgive geologists for this 76 MILLION year ‘rounding error’ if they had been willing to curve the final exam just a tiny bit in GEOL100 at Ohio University back in 1983. But they were not willing to be reasonable then and so neither will I be now. Get your act together geologists. An 18% margin of error is OK for you guys, I suppose, but I miss a “C” by two points and you question my character when I ask for a pitty bump? Be gone! We will finish this conversation without you!
Now that the Flintstones have left the room lets just sit back for a moment and consider how old the Appalachian Mountains really are. They are much, much older than the Rockies and the Alps and virtually every other mountain range on earth. How much older? Who knows? Not me and also not you-know-who. But lots older. Like hundreds of millions of years older. They also used to be just as high as the highest mountain ranges on earth today. Erosion has, over the course of untold millions of years, eroded the former jagged rocky peaks into the chlorophyll choked safehouses of life that we know today. We might consider the rocks that lie exposed today on the trails of this region to be some pretty tough characters. This is the rubble that could not and would not be beaten into submission by numerous ice ages, billions of rain storms, heat, wind, and earthquakes. The shale and sandstone disappeared long ago. A rock that has survived all of that isn’t going to bend easily. It won’t even be beaten into form by contact with its own kind, which is why a small sampling of trail within these mountains (lets say, randomly, 31 miles of such trail) contains millions of rocks in all shapes and sizes. And if they survived the forces of hundreds of millions of years I don’t guess that an ankle or a head will have much impact if they strike them full force.
Dennis Hamrick and a handful of his buddies from Charleston, West Virginia decided 15 years ago that it would be a good idea to hold a race over this terrain. They could have given the race any name they liked, but they are down-to-earth folks and wanted to promote tourism. They wouldn’t want to name the race anything that would scare people away such as ‘The Ankle Breaker 50K’ or ‘The Heat Exhaustion Derby’ or ‘The Squeal Like a Piggy Ultramarathon’. No, this was to be a fun, family sort of race run by fun, family sorts of guys so they decided to call it something nice….and “The Rattlesnake Trail 50K” was born.
This is a brief report of my experiences in this year’s edition:
I pulled into the pool parking lot at Kanahwa State Forest and Dennis walked right up to me to introduce himself. I believe that he sees this event as his personal party and feels a commitment to making sure that each of his ‘guests’ feels welcome. I believe we all did. Rattlesnake has a family reunion feel. The event has grown and become prestigious over the years. It has been called the toughest 50K in the eastern United States but that doesn’t mean you can’t sit around with the race directors and listen to tall tales and bad jokes. There were piles of pizza and coolers filled with pop. I registered and told Dennis that I was heading out to find a hotel. He told me that camping was free and it seemed that a lot of runners were sleeping in their cars and that I was welcome to do the same. The night before Mohican I rented a hotel room and didn’t sleep a wink. This time I took all the stuff out of the trunk of my car, let the back seat down, climbed in and slept so soundly that I almost missed the start of the race.
At 6:15 A.M. I pulled the emergency latch on the inside of the trunk and emerged into a group of runners congregating at the start. I swear any other group on earth would have screamed in horror but all I got were a few ‘Good mornings’. Ultra runners are accustomed to strange behavior I suppose. As I scrambled to get ready for the 6:30 start I realized, to my absolute shock, that I had not packed any running shorts. I pulled every single item out of every single part of the car but they simply weren’t there. Five minutes until race time and no shorts, and to make matters worse I was absolutely groggy from TOO MUCH sleep. Well, what’s a guy to do? I grabbed a pair of Khaki semi-dress shorts out of my suitcase and slipped them on, grabbed my waist belt, and made the start just as the gun fired.
We ran 50 feet and began to climb. Rattlesnake has 10 major climbs. All of them have a uniquely tortuous nature. Some climb straight up like a cliff wall, others are more like a staircase. Some are gentler but endless. They all share one characteristic, however; as you are tackling one type of hill you find yourself wishing it was some other type. The long ones make you sentimental for the short steep ones and vice versa. The downhills ranged from steep and dangerous to gradual and dangerous. All of them were rock strewn. The locals run down them like they are skiing on invisible snow. I pray, jump from rock to rock, and apologize to those whose path I am blocking, which is everyone. Rattlesnake is the only race where I have ever ended up with blisters on my HANDS from grabbing trees in order to stay rubber-side-down on the descents.
Passing through a campground at what might have been the 8 mile mark I was sweating and the cotton shorts were starting to weigh me down so I panhandled a hunting knife from a camper, disappeared into the woods, doffed my shorts, cut three inches from the bottoms of each leg, returned the knife, got a confused look from the camper, and was on my way. It took 2 minutes flat. Indianapolis has never seen a more concise pit stop.
Rattlesnake was my very last chance to goof around with food and water and equipment prior to Burning River. So far the shorts were really truly wonderfully comfortable. They made me feel kinda tough and low-tech. Snooty runners avoided me and grizzled old veterans gave me knowing nods…but I’m wearing regular shorts at Burning River because I’m not insane. I also decided to experience sodium depletion. I took no sodium of any kind for 5 hours then took about 80mg per 30 min. for the last 90 minutes. I felt the sodium kick in and man-oh-man it was like someone handed me a new set of legs. I won’t go into detail but I will say that if my problem in 100’s is sodium I think I have it figured out. If its not sodium and I simply cannot run 100’s for some other reason then so be it, but this was a valuable lesson.
The race, by and large, was spectacularly, lovingly, deliciously uneventful. Tragedies make the best and the longest stories I guess. The Rattlesnake was brutal but not tragic. Everything went according to plan, and by this I mean that I ran on a tough course and suffered accordingly. The aid stations were terrific. They seemed to be staffed by folks who were genuinely interested in our well-being. The course was beautiful. It was just a perfect hot sunny summer day. There wasn’t a single place on earth that I would have rather been.
There were, of course, some runners who badly misjudged the race. By-and-large these people kept their misery to themselves. The only exception that I saw befell the family from Parkersburg who had the misfortune of choosing a picnic shelter at the base of hill #8. For all the world their family picnic looked like an aid station. They soon learned that the actual aid station was located about 100 yards away and it became their unofficial duty to explain this to each and every runner as they passed. They were kind people however and apparently not beyond offering some aid to a truly needy runner. As I ran by, a woman who appeared to be the matriarch of the clan walked up to a runner calling out “I WAS able to find a hammer after all”. As she said this the poor wretch proceeded to vomit within 5 feet of the pavilion. I’m guessing that he thought this was the aid station and asked for some sort of Hammer product since they were the race sponsors. Another Rattlesnake casualty I suppose. I will never know whether or not I could have been of some sort of assistance…because I didn’t stop to ask. I was too busy getting myself back to the swimming pool for a dunk prior to my drive home.
The final half mile of this race turns flat and perfectly runnable. I was surprised and really really really grateful. I finished in 6:37…over an hour faster than my only other attempt at this race, in 2004. I crossed the finish line with a huge smile on my face and was handed a water bottle and a glass sculpture that was either a replica of a Hershey’s Kiss or some sort of bird. I don’t know what it is but I love it to pieces and I’m keeping it forever, or until the last rock in the Appalachian Mountains has turned to sand, whichever comes first.