All year I’ve been looking forward to going to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge to run the inaugural Rugged Red Trail Half Marathon. Yesterday, it finally happened! My first trail half marathon – and it was certainly rugged, as the name might suggest. More on that later.
I finally started getting up early to run, which I think is going to be integral to my time management. Thursdays, I run 5 miles, which takes longer. Running it in the morning means I have more time at home in the evenings, and I’ll be able to mow, clean, not doing anything, etc. It was not easy. When my alarm told me it was 5:30 in the morning, I told it to shut right up. But in the end, I got up and ran a course around a large cemetery. As the sun rose, it revealed a low bank of fog obscuring the headstones, making the whole setting quite serene. There’s nothing quite like a sunrise, really. It’s very pretty watching everything wake up.
The Rugged Red
This being the inaugural Rugged Red, I expected two things: an epic trail run and an event that has several kinks that need to be ironed out in the future. I was not disappointed on either front. There seemed to be a lot of miscommunication between the race organizers and last minute changes to details. The race began at a location 45 minutes away from the race headquarters, so shuttles were going to take the runners to the trailhead. Where the shuttles would leave from changed a few times. We ended up going to “the building next to the Dollar General” at 6:00 in the morning. This building was huge and filled with busses. As we approached them, it felt like we were in some sort of mass evacuation in the middle of the night. Hundreds of people wearing headlamps were moving in every direction, questions were being answered, runners were getting checked in…it was nuts. My friend Eric and I finally got on our bus, where we sat for at least 30 minutes before finally being driven to the trailhead. When we got there, every person on each bus (close to 400 runners) had to use the bathroom, and four port-a-johns stood bravely to host that enterprise. The line was insane, so quite a few of us ended up going in the woods. Much preferable, in my opinion.
Runners were organized into waves. The whistle was blown. The first runners were off. Before I knew it, my wave (number 4), was at the starting line. “Be careful out there. It’s wet and muddy.” They blew the whistle, and we ran down the road away from the murmuring hoard of bathroom-deprived, bus-bedraggled, thirsty, anxious, excited runners awaiting their wave. It was two or so miles before we got to the actual trail. Finally in the woods, it seemed like this Rugged Red thing was really going to happen. I won’t go into a ton of details here. They’re all pretty fuzzy in my mind anyway. We climbed over 4,091 feet of elevation, splashed through five streams, saw beautiful vistas, and were dwarfed by incredible rocky cliffs. Everything was amazing.
I remember thinking around mile 8 or 9 “I can’t believe I’m still running.” We had climbed two small mountains by then, pitched down their sides to the ravine below, and crossed the streams. Up the big climb at mile 11, though, is where all the energy in my body was gone. I’ve never felt so depleted where the only option is to sit, which I did. Other “runners” (nobody was running at this point) passed me up and a few sat down with me. We were facing a steep, rocky climb that seemed virtually impossible. I finally summoned the strength and continued. There were medics at the top helping an individual who was “having a hard time,” a sight that became more familiar as the final miles of this race torturously rolled by. I plodded along very slowly for a really long time, incrementally feeling my legs recover the urge to walk faster, and finally feeling okay enough to run. It was a long time in unfamiliar woods not knowing if I would ever be able to run again.
Eventually, I started hearing a voice in the distance. I knew this was the voice at the finish line announcing the bib numbers as each runner crossed over. This gave me such a surge of energy, simply knowing the end was near enough to hear. I joked to a fellow runner “I think I can smell bananas!” And we both took off down the trail as if we hadn’t just endured the most painful, trying two miles we’ve ever experienced. I finally crossed the finish line in just under four hours – almost two hours longer than my half marathon PR. Having finished 10 or 15 minutes before me, Eric was already lounging in the grass, and he screamed my name as I went over the finish line, which was both hilarious and great to hear. “You gotta do this; you need to lay down. It feels amazing.”
In the hours after, I reflected on the reality of that race with a comparison: Last year, I took a group of students backpacking near the Great Smoky Mountains. Our longest day of hiking was 12 miles, which took us the entire day. Today I ran farther, faster on much more difficult terrain and lived to tell the tale. As we sat at Miguel’s Pizza, eating ridiculously good pizza surrounded by a torrential downpour, the pain and exhaustion slowly began to wear away and was replaced with the euphoria of accomplishment. It might not have been pretty, and it certainly wasn’t as fast as some, but I finished running.