Darkness is still covering the woods on this early December morning. Unusual stillness hangs in the air. Hushed conversations can be heard here and there. My body shivers now and then as I stand close to the logs hissing in the struggling fire. I don’t know for sure if my shaking is caused by the early morning chill or because I am both nervous and excited in anticipation of my new adventure. My first 100k trail race–inaugural Redbird Crest 100k–was about to begin.
The lollipop-shaped course is located for its majority in the beautiful mountains of Leslie County in the southeastern Kentucky, my wife’s birthplace. I should have payed more attention to the expression on her face when I first expresses my interest in running the Redbird Crest 100k. Growing up in the area, she was very familiar with the terrain, wildlife and people in the area. Obviously, I missed the signals of warning and fear for me in her eyes.
There I was along with about two dozens of other brave runners lined up in the starting chute. We were ready to take on the challenge. After brief announcements and wishes from the Race Director Mike we started the clock that would chronicle may events that unfolded that day.
The course proved to be very challenging with several big 600-700 feet climbs, but it’s the abundance of smaller 100-200 feet hills that seemed to put me “over the edge” at times. Ruts and rocks covered with a thick blanket of fallen leaves presented difficulties through out the whole race, especially when running in the dark. Coming to this kind of an event you should come with the expectation to suffer. So let’s not dwell on that. You have to embrace it and look past it.
The beautiful Eastern Kentucky mountains, camaraderie of the runners, help and encouragement from volunteers and local community, and the passion of Race Directors Mike and Brandy are what made this day a truly unforgettable experience.
Around mile seventeen I ran into Matt, a local guy who lost his dog in the woods. After a brief conversation, getting the dog description and Matt’s phone number in case I came across his pup I continued my journey. Somewhere around mile twenty two I hear a runner approaching me from behind. Really fast runner. Black-and-white dog with orange color zoomed right passed me. I called Matt and gave him my location to the best of my ability. For the next four miles I ran with the dog on and off, finally leaving him behind at an aid station. Later hearing from other runners and volunteers I estimated that the pup trekked at least a dozen of miles before reuniting with the owner.
After the first twenty miles I was back where we started, Sugar Creek Aid Station. Charity helped me by filling up my hydration pack. No matter how small it seemed, every kind word and act carried a deep sense of meaning to me. Twenty some miles later, Craig replenished my water supply and brought a bowl of hot soup while I was preparing to embark on the last leg of the race.
Race Director Mike said there will be coffee waiting for me at the finish as I ran back into the woods toward the sunset. The thought of that coffee visited me multiple times as every step was taking me closer to the finish line. You have to hang on to every positive thought you can to help you keep moving past the physical pain and exhaustion.
Six miles down the trail which was rapidly plunging into darkness, Jesse was slinging some delicious bean burritos. Even after hearing from experienced trail runners cautioning from trying anything new on your race day, I went for it. What the heck?! Jesse’s concoction sustained me for another eight miles.
Newbie 100k runner like me, Mike (not to confuse with Race Director Mike) became one of the biggest highlights of the race. We pushed and pulled each other for thirty five or so miles. I am grateful for Mike’s support and encouragement.
As Mike and I were pulling out of the last aid station, we saw Lauren coming in. We high-fived and Lauren asked if I was slowing down. I replied, “No, I think you’re speeding up! As you always do.” Lauren passed me at the very end of the last two races we ran together. I went ahead of her in the beginning of the race and kept looking behind me the rest of the race expecting her to pass me at any time. “Not this time!” I thought to myself as Mike and I dove into the darkness with about seven miles to go.
I was getting a little silly. I started to see things. I saw a deer sitting on its rear right in the middle of the trail. Also, there was a large tarantula-size spider on the rock, which really was just an oak leaf. Something happened after a few minutes of bizarre visions. My head cleared. The pain in my feet and knees went away or maybe I didn’t feel it anymore. I saw trail in front of my in great detail. I started to gain speed. I prayed a lot on my last leg of the race. Feeling of gratitude was filling my heart.
I was grateful for beautiful Eastern Kentucky and the people that lived there. I was grateful for my wife who puts up with all my nonsense and was waiting for me at the finish line. I was grateful for Mike, Lauren, Doug, Shawn and the rest of the runners I had privilege of running with that day. I was grateful for Charity, Craig, Jesse and the rest of the volunteers who sacrificed their time. I was grateful…
“Oh, crap! What is this?!” Suddenly, I was interrupted by a loud howling of a pack of coyotes that were up the mountain right above me. With my heart pounding and emergency whistle clenched in my hand I left them in the dark behind me. I was grateful to make it to the last one mile stretch. I was grateful for Race Directors Mike and Brandy, for all their work in putting together these awesome Next Opportunity Events races. I was grateful for that long awaited cup of hot coffee that was there across the finish line.
As I crested the mountain, I saw the light down at the bottom of it. I could hear the music and cheers of people who spotted the light from my headlamp slowly bouncing down the mountain in its approach to the finish. Finish! Sheer joy and happiness!
Getting out there is what matters. Challenge yourself and see what’s under your skin. You may be surprised!
Read the race director’s recap of the race Small But Mighty: Redbird Crest 100k Recap & Unstoppable Award Announcement