As many of you know, I took a hard fall playing soccer and broke my wrist less than two weeks before the Rattlesnake Trail 50k. It was the start of the playoffs and we won so my sacrifice was not completely in vain. (Go Fuego United, my arm forever belongs to you!). Now let me just say that this 50k is tough. Like over 5,500 feet of elevation gain tough. This is divvied out between 10 major climbs meaning each hill has roughly the same vertical climb as found in the entire Boston Marathon (544 ft). In a weird twist of events, my wrist of course being the twisted thing, the difficulty of this course also turned out to be my saving grace! While I wasn’t cleared to run, the race’s 9 hour time limit helped me convince my doctor into letting me power hike the thing and I had the illusion that I would in fact do that. After my appointment I told my husband and called my mom to share that I could still hike the 31 miles and they both skeptically asked, “But will you?” Apparently they know me better than I know myself.
So my two sisters, my 3 year old son and 3 year old nephew took off on a road trip for West Virginia really not knowing if I’d be able to finish the race or not, let alone in nine hours. Driving into the Kanawha State Forest we got a view of the hills I’d be climbing and my sisters joked that they felt bad for me. We scored an awesome campsite with a small bridge over a creek that helped keep the kiddos entertained and contained. My sisters set up camp while I supervised. Then it poured. We hid in the tent and I donned a steamy plastic bag over my splint. The rain stopped long enough for us to go to the pre-race dinner where the race director, Dennis Hamrick, assured me that no one would be left on the course without aid and support. We let the kids play in the creek for awhile, made some delicious s’mores and then got in the tent where it poured again pretty much all night long. The positive side being that it rained so much that there wasn’t any left for it to rain during the race! We slept off and on, distracted by the sound of the rain and the terrifying call of nearby barn owls. (If you’re curious, this is what they sound like).
My older sister helped me with all the things I couldn’t do – she drove me to the start in the morning, pinned my race bib, put up my hair and filled my pack. We went over the game plan again: if at any point my wrist was hurting or swelling, I would simply stop at an aid station and get a ride back to the start/finish, conveniently located next to a playground and swimming pool. If I was feeling good, I would let the aid station workers know that “the girl with the broken wrist” was feeling good. Simple as that.
A pre-race talk, a traditional gunshot and then the race started! After a short jaunt on the road we hit the trail and immediately started up the first of ten steep uphill climbs which I hiked on up as planned. The hills were definitely in my favor as almost everyone was hiking. When at the top of the first ridgeline, I determined that jogging slowly and cautiously felt just the same on my wrist as power hiking. Any time the footing looked questionable I slowed to a walk.
There was one runner, Jonie, who was employing a similar strategy and we stayed together for a bit. She had run the Rattlesnake Trail 50k ten times before and was very knowledgeable about the course and generally pleasant to talk to. I decided to go on ahead which started the first of many times we passed each other throughout the course. Normally in races I am the one passing people on the uphills and getting passed on the downhills but not with Jonie! I fondly referred to her as the mountain goat woman as she’d hustle pass me up the beastly hills. I would eventually catch up with her on the ridges then go on my way until the next big climb. At one point, as we were running through a powerline cut, my head was suddenly yanked back stuck in some thorns. Jonie helped get it out while I shoved blackberries in my mouth.
The course was beautiful and the uphills kept things especially interesting. Some of the climbs were so steep that I’d get to a switchback and say out loud, “really?” But each hill made the accompanying ridgeline and downhill that much more rewarding. When it wasn’t hilly, it was wet and muddy. It was hot and humid but the low hanging branches were wet from the previous nights’ rain, effectively cooling me off when I’d brush past or give a light tug. I packed a plastic bag for my cast in case it started pouring but somehow it never did.
I have learned through trial and error that salt tablets are a huge benefit to me and I took them regularly throughout the race. I also had my favorite running foods in my bag (potato chips and strawberries) which I ate on the walking sections but it was also nice to have a variety of food and soda to grab and go at each aid station. The aid stations were great. There were 9 of them between 2 and 5 miles apart, fully stocked and manned by some awesome volunteers.
Each aid station showed the current mileage and the distance until the next, which I found helpful. Because of this, I focused less on counting down the miles and more on getting to the next aid station – a strategy I think will work well for me in my hundred miler. The first couple aid stations I left the message that “the girl with the broken arm” was doing well in case my sisters asked. Soon after people started greeting me with things like, “Oh we heard about you!” or “You’re the girl with the broken arm!” A joke even started going around that I had broken my arm on the course, bandaged it up and kept going. Ha – I don’t think I’d ever be that crazy! Well… maybe if it was in the final miles…
Since my dominant hand is the one in a cast, there are some simple tasks that I just cannot do quickly. My sister had filled my hydration pack to its capacity so that I wouldn’t need to bother with it too often but I still needed a refill a little over halfway through. One aid station volunteer went above and beyond when he helped me fill my pack up and buckle it back on again. That doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that I was completely drenched in sweat at this point, as was my pack, and he had to touch it. I hope the poor man has since recovered. I asked which way to continue running and he said, “Always up!” I should have known.
The course was for the most part very well marked. There was one section where a sign read “Did you do the loop?” and you could see the continuation of the course very close by. This was a bit confusing when standing there scanning the woods for the tape, but made more sense taking it one turn at a time. I followed the arrows, didn’t go down any trails marked “Wrong way” and figured it out ok but I know a few others got confused here. Another spot near the end was confusing for me when I saw a ribbon in the middle of the woods! I did not know there was a bushwacking section. I followed the tape through saw briers but then saw more tape on a gravel road just up the hill and still more straight ahead. Surely I wasn’t supposed to zig-zag off trail? Eventually it intersected an actual trail but I wasn’t certain that I was headed the right direction until I pulled some Sherlock Holmes level detective work, looking at the direction of footprints in the mud. I asked the race director about it later and he said he had planned on making a trail so runners didn’t have to run the gravel logging road but decided against it and wasn’t expecting anyone to see the random markers in the woods. Oops! Oh well, my kids thought my scraped up legs were pretty cool and that’s good enough for me.
The mud made things difficult to navigate and I walked anytime the trail seemed slick or there was evidence that someone had slipped. From what I’ve heard, the constant influx of rain was pretty uncharacteristic and I doubt the mud is normally an issue. There were a few spots that were difficult for me to climb with a broken wrist but I managed just fine.
The last miles were the easiest of the race except for the sore legs, soggy feet and bruised toenails. After a tricky one-armed rock climb, the trail went downhill for a good bit and then flattened out for the final mile or so. I turned the corner to see my sisters pushing the boys in the swings near the finish. I called happily to get their attention and awkwardly waited a little so my son could run in with me to the finish. I guess he’s over the novelty of these races and wasn’t really interested in joining me this time so off I went. It felt so good to be done but it was comforting to know that I could have continued on. My time was 8 hours and 34 minutes and I came in as the 4th female out of 10, 21st place out of 33 runners. I’d love to know how fast I could have finished it on a normal, less cautious day but I’m very happy with how things turned out considering the broken wrist and the wet conditions. My legs and feet were very sore but my wrist somehow felt better than normal – good circulation and no pain whatsoever. If you’re considering this race, DO IT. If a mom with a broken wrist can do it, then so can you. Expect a challenge, not a PR, but it will be worth it.
Thank you to all who helped get me to the finish! Thank you to the race director, for providing a quality trail race; thank you to the volunteers, for giving up your time to help people you don’t even know! Thank you mom, for watching my youngest son overnight to make this happen. And finally, thank you to my sisters, for EVERYTHING! What an awesome trip!
Disclaimer: I wrote this post on my laptop, left handed, in the presence of two toddlers. Sorry about the weird formatting!