Rattlesnake Trail 50K

There were no rattlesnakes at the Rattlesnake Trail 50K in Charleston, West Virginia. At least, we didn’t see any. My running buddy and I wanted to do an ultra together before I moved from Northern Virginia to Japan. I looked in UltraRunning Magazine and found a 50-kilometer race on July 13, less than seven hours away.

The run took place in Kanawha State Forest, on one of those rare and wonderful days when the weather, my body and my mind all cooperated. I felt great and in the mood to run. The day was mostly overcast, with comfortable temperatures and an occasional sprinkling of rain. The course was advertised as “65% trails, 35% dirt roads and 5% asphalt.” (I’m not sure how to account for the extra 5%.)

This was the second Rattlesnake Trail 50K. Last year saw 18 finishers, led by Courtney Campbell of Berryville, Virginia, with an unbelievable time of 3:39:06. His favorite Bible verse is on this year’s race T-shirt: “…they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint,” from Isaiah 40:31.

Only 15 percent of the course was flat. The remainder was either up or down, with nine major climbs, and aid stations along the main road through the bottom of the park. Up the side of one mountain, back down, aid station, repeat process–that’s how the day went.

The trail seemed to consist mostly of switchbacks. We sometimes ran parallel to a trail we’d just traveled in the opposite direction. The downhill stretches were frequently too steep to run.

We reached the first aid station–along Rattlesnake Run–in 38 minutes. The sign said four miles, but I knew it couldn’t be correct. Since my bout with bronchitis, I can’t run that fast on roads, much less walking up steep hills. I estimated three miles, knowing the extra mile was out there waiting for us later in the day.

Our time at the second aid station (6 miles) was 66 minutes. An 11-minute pace? No way. All the trails, hollows and ridges had names. We went up the Linde Trail and down Teaberry, along Shrewsbury and Mossy Rock. We ran through Hoffman Hollow, climbed Black Bear trail to Pigeon Roost, and picked our way along Rocky Ridge, which dropped off sharply on both sides.

Going down into Johnson Hollow, we reached the Log Town Hollow picnic area at 21 miles. Hearing voices and expecting an aid station, I was disappointed to find someone having a picnic. Our aid station was half a mile farther.

Betty Sue sped up the hills, saying her short legs gave her that ability. She waited for me to plod to the top, concentrating on continuous forward movement and placing one foot in front of the other. Going downhill I was faster and more sure-footed.

The Number One Store Trail at 22 miles required a 10-minute climb. We ran along Pine Ridge down to Dunlap Hollow, then up Polecat trail to Boundary Road. One switchback consisted of going around and under a huge boulder. We had to climb over one edge of the boulder to get back on the trail. Fortunately, other runners were crossing as we arrived, and they pulled us over the rock.

On Wildcat Ridge (about 26 miles) a West Virginia Air National Guard unit was practicing evacuation of casualties. If we weren’t running for time, I might have volunteered to be one of their casualties. Several of them looked interesting enough to get to know. Betty Sue asked, “Any free medical advice?”

Their answer: “Walk!”

The last major hill of the day took 19 minutes to climb. We found the missing mile from the first leg. This stretch had to be 5.5 miles, not 4.5. I emptied my water bottle several miles before the aid station in White Hollow. (At the start of the race someone had asked if it was necessary to carry water on the trail. The race director said no, because there would be water every 3-4 miles. We didn’t listen to such poor advice.) We managed to find enough energy to run the last two miles along Davis Creek.

At the finish line we were presented with Rattlesnake Trail 50K belt buckles. There were 68 finishers; no one had dropped out. Three completed the race on sprained ankles. One runner sprained his at mile eight, and kept going.

Betty Sue and I covered 31 miles in a satisfactory time of 7:57:17. We agreed to meet at another ultra, somewhere, sometime in the future when I return from Japan.

Originally printed in the Clear Lake Courier — 4 September 1996

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