Looking for a good trail race with some sun? There is a new race that might interest you: St John Trail Race. Perfect training: 13.6 miles, 2700+ ft of elevation, less than $30: it sounds the right event to train for the coming races and relax in a nice sunny environment.
I am signed up for now but not sure if I will definitively go there. It will mostly depend on other coming trips and vacation plans. I am really excited because this is the inaugural year and I might have the chance to do great for this first event (what about finishing in the top three in my age group)? I am not doing it this year, I make another edition for sure! No matter what, if you are looking for a nice trail race with some sunny weather you have no excuse, sign up for this race!
Why did I signed up for this race again? This was supposed to be a fun week-end: my birthday was the day after the race and at that time of the year, the weather is usually better than ever. So, why not going outside and explore the nature rather than going in a bar and drink for hours? Forget the PR 50K is known to be challenging, with a lot of hills and some root climbing. But it is also known to be a lot of fun and the event is sold out within a few days. So, it was the perfect activity for this special week end. After long hesitation (of about 3 seconds), I signed up. I was ready to hit the trails again.
On another note, this race was my first trail race after being injured. Sure, I was able to run a marathon a month ago but it was totally flat. Going for an ultra is a completely different story and mindset. On top of that, the last weeks have been very though, either physically or mentally. It will be interesting to see how it impacts the overall race experience.
I booked a room at the Blackfork Inn Bed & Breakfast. This is a local and lovely business, it sounds like a nice place to stay before the race. I arrived on Friday afternoon, just the time to rest, go to the pre-race pasta party/dinner and be ready. Even if I do not believe in carb-loading, going to the pasta-party for the race is a nice way to meet other runners and honestly, some have fantastic stories (special thoughts for the girl that ran 60+ miles and ended up by using a Bobcat to find her car during the night, I am sure she will recognize herself!).
I did not plan or prepare the race in terms of nutrition. As life was unpredictable since a month, my nutrition plan was totally driven by food cravings. One day, I could eat almost nothing (one peanut butter sandwich) and eating a full 5-cheese pizza pie the next day. And yes, of course, I ran after eating the pizza because “Dude, you have to be used to that”. On top of that, because of many commitments, I was not able to get more than 5 hours of sleep the week before the race – which is probably the most important aspect. So, to overcome the lack of sleep, this was time to sleep early and go to bed at 8pm to make sure I can get some sleep before race day. Better than nothing.
It turned out that the folks at the Blackfork Inn are fabulous hosts, friendly and give a good service. While I initially planned to request a bagel with peanut butter, the owner told me he will wake up at 5am and make me pancakes with eggs because “you’ll need energy to run on the trails”. The full breakfast, the one that will make you miserable half-way and makes you puke. While I have many doubts about the specific pre-race nutrition knowledge of my host, it is hard to refuse such an invitation. So, I decided to be adventurous and try the full breakfast service before the race. A full stack (3) of pancakes, eggs and of course everything topped with syrup and peanut butter. Such a pre-race meal ensures that sugar will flow into your veins as chemical flows into the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh. Lovely. After this breakfast, I was ready to sleep go and head to the bathroom packet pick up.
When getting in the car, I just have one though in mind: this race is going to be interesting but probably not so fun.
The race starts at 0730am. For this 2015 edition, the weather was terrific: slightly cold at the start and getting warmer during the day. You cannot expect better conditions. Before starting, the race director gave some indications about course changes. Basically, as it rained a lot the days before the race, the course has been changed for safety reasons. Instead of doing the usual course, we were expected to make more or less two loops of the course (except the dam loop – we did it once). As I am not half-stupid (and rather totally stupid), I missed all the information about the changes. I did not know exactly what flags to look for but I knew that I would eventually make it to the finish.
The race is about 31 miles with more than 5000 feet of elevation (5631 to be precise). The map and the elevation profile of this 2015 are shown below. If you are looking for complete information about this route, you can find the mapmyrun map and data here.
Video by Travis Lloyd – good overview of the race
The race starts with some hills and then continues on “big has hill”. At that time (about 3 miles), the pancakes (or the peanut butter, who knows) decided to remind me how delicious my breakfast was. An unexpected internal war between my brain, my stomach and the willingness to throw up starts in the middle of the hill. Going on this steep hill, my heart rate increased significantly. I felt I was about to faint, stop, walk on the side and eventually continue to the top. Great. I did not remember how I made it to the top. But I made it, and this is what matters.
These hills are quite challenging but once you pass them, the elevation is reasonable. On the other hand, the route is technical: lot of roots and rocks.After a while, you hit the first aid-station. I was not very hungry but knew that I needed to take something. There was something I never tried called energy bites (recipe below) and it sounds delicious. So, as I did not put enough crap in my GI system, I tried it right away: we are here for an adventure, right? So, let’s make it interesting. At that time, we were 6 miles in the race. And I started to experience nausea and wanted to puke. I was having a good time.
There is no very steep climb (as in Eastern States 100 for example), but this is definitively more challenging than a road race. When you get to the Dam Loop, you start to explore an area with a lot of roots. At some point, you cannot even run or walk and just have to climb the roots. Very fun and cool, this part was definitively a lot of fun. In addition, there is a lot (a ton) of mud and you will have to run in water streams (which will then clean your shoes).
Once we completed the first loop, you come back to the start and, you start to see the light: there are bathroom available. At that time, I logged 20 miles, had just 10 more to go so. It was then appropriate to take some time to evaluate the damages. For sure, after 5 minutes, I had nausea, headaches and wanted to throw up. But there was no way I was about to give up with just 10 miles to go. No. Way.
So, I started the second loop and climb the big ass hill again. This second time went very well, better than expected. But after, I wanted to throw up again. When I got to the aid-station, there was the energy bites again and so, had to honor this delicious treat and take another one. This of course triggers the nausea symptoms again, which finally helps me decide on a policy of “nothing into your mouth until the finish”. Everything I put in my mouth – water, food, whatever – gave nausea, headaches, was very painful and I just wanted to puke. This lead me to be very dehydrated quickly because I stop drinking water even before (at mile 20 or so).
I finally completed the last 6 miles at a steady pace and made it to the finish line in 6:43:19. At that point, thanks to all the crap I had before (breakfast topped with syrup and peanut butter) and during (energy bites) the race, I still had fuel in the tank to go ahead and continue for a lot of miles – doing 50 miles did not seem so challenging at the finish. Not sure my stomach will agree on that but I did not really felt tired at all. I tried to go for a run the next day to see how I feel and was able to run about 6 miles at 0830 min/mile pace without any pain. Looks like I will be ready for the coming Burning River 50 milers in July then.
Post Race Party
Once you cross the finish line, you got a medal and you have an area to rest. Food is also provided for runners and is vegetarian compliant (simple – but much appreciated after a race – chili). More important than anything else, especially for this race: there are showers available with hot water. Considering the course and the mud on the course, this is more than appreciated.
Also, there is a beer tasting The environment is very friendly and people are cheering when you cross the finish line.
Let’s do it?
If you like trails and are looking for a great race, heck yeah, do it! The race is only $70 which is really reasonable for such a race. Considering the markings, the support, having portable toilets on a trail race and that the aid station are well-stocked, this is definitively worth it. The race director puts a very nice event, which is challenging, fun and beautiful.
The Take Away
What did I learn during this race? That your experience during race day depends on your preparation. While I got the physical preparation (training, log enough miles, etc.), I did not plan ahead as I should have done. The rules to finish a race without issue are very simple and basic:
Get your miles in – no matter what and get a long run few weeks before. This part was ok – I got an average of 70 miles per week and completed a marathon.
Eat carefully before the race and do not overload your system – my diet was a roller coaster driven by pizza cravings and gallons of diet soda. Definitively a mistake.
Get enough sleep all the week before the race – it was a miserable failure as well – I got an average of 5 hours of sleep during the last weeks before the race – probably the biggest mistake
Stick to what works for you and do not be distracted – by taking food I am not used to (pasta, pancakes) in big quantities, I did something my body is not used to. Just stick to what works.
While these rules are simple and basic, being consistent on the long run can be challenging, especially if the pre-race preparation if not your main focus. But there is no snake-oil and success will mostly rely on your consistency at following these rules. As you work, relations or many other activities: the basics are simple – applying them for hours/weeks/years it what makes it particularly difficult. Also, be careful: these rules are necessary but will not guarantee anything. It just reduces the likelihood of having a bad day.
This was the beginning of a week-end, the first race that was a good shakeout before going to finish a half-marathon and cheer friends. I went to the Rock’n the Knob 5 mile race on Saturday, 13 and … it was a blast!
This race is organized by the Allegheny Trailrunners, the same folks that organize the Dirty Kiln. Needless to say, there are putting all the necessary attention and care for making a great event. For $20, you get a great race with scenic views, a tee-shirt, great company and a complete refuel at the finish with the beer brewed for the race! What else could you ask for?
If you plan to stay next to the race, you can get a studio located at a walking distance from the start for $50/night. Great deal to make sure you are on time but also get a place to get a shower after your race! The place itself is old but at this price, you do not really care. On the other hand, the food offered by the local bar is not so great and you might want to pack your own food. Typical bar food, nothing to write home about.
The race starts at 0930 for the 5miles whereas the 20 miles starts earlier at 0830. You start on the trails on technical and rocky paths. Something that will excite many trail runners but will sound not so appealing to many others. The weather being rainy, it was easy to potential trip and fall so that you have to be careful and watch out where you put you foot. The 5 miles course alternate moderate hills. Around the finish, you go over a ski slope, which is big challenging down hill section.
The course is well marked with flags and punk ribbons. I missed some signs but the likelihood you get lost is very low. On the 5 miles option, there was only one aid station (at mile 2), which was more than enough. The 20 miles option has several with snacks and other food.
At the finish, you get an untypical medal (a bottle opener!) and some great company. Also, once you are done, you can replenish with beer (a local brewery – Railroad City – brews a beer for the race – a nice pale ale!), sandwich, pizza and pastries.
This was definitively a great experience. Unfortunately, as I was running the next day, I did not want to overexercise and thus, selected the 5 miles option. Considering all the aspects and the logistics, I will definitively be back next year and make the 20 miles option. The scenic view, the fantastic support from the trail runners community justify going for such a distance. Finishing so quickly was frustrating. I wanted more and continue this beautiful journey.
If you are looking to run on trails and never did a race from these folks, check out their next race, Sweat for Vet but also consider running Dirty Kiln or Rock’n the Knob. Fantastic experience guaranteed.
Thanks to all my Steel City Road Runners for this fantastic week-end in Waterville, PA. Having the honor and the opportunity to pace for a couple of miles in the dark was a unique experience. This reminded me going up and down the 37000 feet of ascent/descent in Corsica while discovering the nature along the GR20. Congratulations to all the participants, this is a though and technical course with narrow and rocky trails. Definitively not designed for all runners.
Thanks to all for this experience: runners, crew, non-runners, volunteers: this has been a great experience!
This week-end, I am heading to Waterville, PA in order to participate with some friends in the inaugural year of the Eastern States 100. This is an ultra-marathon, a 100 miles race that goes along the trails around Grand Canyon, PA (and many others cities in the area). I am planning to rest during this week-end and have a nice jog/hike/run with a fellow Steel City Road Runner that will attempt to finish it. Assuming he survives to the first 60 miles, I will have the pleasure to pace him, meaning that I will do my best to keep him awake, make sure he stays on his feet, eats his veggies peanut-butter sandwiches and is on time to arrive before the end of the race. Any trick is accepted except to carry him to the finish line.
This is a big deal, especially considering the elevation profile (see below). The big up/down hills are similar to the 8 first miles of the Laurel Highlands Ultra. I am planning to pace for 18 miles, from mile 60 (around 1200am – midnight) to miles 78 (probably around 0600am). This means staying 6 hours on my feet going mostly up and downhills. Sounds easy; you just have to keep a pace of 20 min per mile. But running the same elevation once some weeks ago pushed me out of my comfort zone and it asked more than two weeks to fully recover.
But this run will be a come back to the roots, the trails, the adventure in Corsica on the GR20 I completed some years ago. Exploring the nature during the day or at night. Listening to the nature, seeing things that became unusual in our so-well organized daily life in the city. Pushing your limits, being out of your comfort zone, rediscover yourself and at the finish, sharing our experience and enjoy the company of existing or new friends. Just rediscover simple things, things we are not no longer used to.
On April, 5, I did the Dirty Kiln Race Half-Marathon that takes place in Canoe Creek Park near Altoona in Pennsylvania. I signed up in December, registration fee were $25. The race starts at 09am, so, I have to drive very early in the morning or drive the day before if you come from Pittsburgh. I did the latest to make sure I get a good night of sleep. Packet pick up starts at 0745am and you can get your bib until the start of the race. Two races take place: a 5 miles and a half-marathon. Both share the same route.
The packet/swag contains a tech t-shirt, some magazines and ads. For $25, considering the support for the race, the organization and the water-stop food available, this is one of the best deal ever! The Cook Forest half was $30 and did not have a tech t-shirt (only a regular t-shirt), no medal did not have so much organization (think about putting flags all over the route on the trail …) and did not provide so much food as well! This is not a critique for Cook Forest which was a great race but rather to point the fact that the Dirty Kiln is definitively very cheap while providing many things you usually do not expect at that price.
“Hello, we are going to get muddy!”
The race itself is very muddy, and many runners will fall and get mud on their hands. Also, you have to pass several water streams, which can be challenging because they can be very high and difficult to cross. So, you will be definitively wet after your run and that can be hard during the first miles. The race is pretty hilly (see the workout with the elevation profile on mapmyrun) and you will have to walk part of it. During the race, there are several water stops with cookies and other food. There are water, gatorade, oreos and other junk food for trail runners.
I chose to run with my Hoka Stinson Trail and this was definitively a good choice: I did not feel any big impact even running down the hills. Definitively a great shoe, either for trail or road running. The support all over the course was great (lot of volunteers, the course was marked everywhere with signs). On the nutrition side, if there was plenty of food available on the race, I did not eat that much because the distance is very short, so, you did not really need to get anything. I just satisfied a craving by taking one Orea and it was sufficient to make it to the finish! Also, as you eventually fall, your hands are just covered by mud, so, this is probably not the right time to get any food with your hands.
Crossing the streams can be challenging
At the finish line, you get a finisher medal that shows your accomplishment. Also, you can get your time, get food (pizza is provided by a sponsor) and take a shower. It was so freezing that I just go in my car and drive back. On the other hand, this is a very friendly event and with a better weather, that will be great to hang out with other fellow runners. Shorty after the race, the results are posted online by Miles of Smiles and photos are available online for free. So, no spam from any organizations asking you to pay an insane and ridiculous fee for your picture, you just get it online easy and for free. Also, a lot of people posted pictures and videos from the race on the facebook page, which shows also the support of the community! This aspect just shows that this event is done by trail runners for trail runners and just want to share their passion of running by making a nice and friendly event. Just loved it!
Cheap race with a nice bag (with t-shirt and finisher medal!)
Fantastic course with clear flags to know where to go
Nice hill workout
Nice water stops
The post-race party simple and well organized
If you do not like to get muddy, go away
If you are very sensible to low temperature, you can feel like freezing (but it goes away after 10 minutes of running ….)
To sum up
If you are living around and love the race, you should definitively add it to your calendar. Friendly, with a nice course with marks so that you are not lost. Support from the community and everything you need during a nice Saturday workout. You just cannot beat that! And I will definitively come back next year if the date fits with my agenda.