On the second Saturday in March Hubs and I set off in the pre-dawn darkness for McElhattan, Pennsylvania to run the Fire On the Rocks 10k trail race. Hoo boy, if we had only known what we were getting ourselves into!
The race was advertised as “a great beginner/intermediate level trail race held at Zindel Park in McElhattan, PA.” I was looking forward to a fun little warm-up for trail racing this spring. I forgot about the devious and cruel nature of trail race directors and their warped sense of humor.
Just as in a race we ran earlier this year, the race director sent an email to runners a week before the race warning of icy, snowy trail conditions. We threw our YakTrax into the car at the last minute before the other race and were very glad we did. When I packed a drop bag the night before Fire on the Rocks, I included my micro-spikes.
Once again, there was no snow on the ground at our house, but the race was 2.5 hours north and west. Despite temperatures in the 60s and 70s for most of the week, we worried about residual snow, especially on north-facing slopes.
We arrived at the designated parking area 45 minutes before the race. There we had a choice between walking the half-mile to the race start or taking a school bus shuttle. We grabbed our bags and opted to walk to stretch our legs. The morning was beautiful, sunny, windless, and cold. The temperature was around 25 degrees.
After arriving at the starting line, we stowed our bags near a pavilion, stood in line for the porta-potty, picked up our race packets, and pinned on our bibs. We finished just in time to hear the pre-race announcements. The race director informed us the trails were 95% ice and snow-free. No spikes were needed.
The race director, a member of the PA Trail Dogs running group, counted backward from 10, and the runners took off.
The first mile of the race was an easy one, slightly uphill on a narrow gravel road. I was lulled into a (false) sense of confidence, thinking this race would live up to its easy billing. And then we hit the single-track trails.
At first, the trails seemed extremely ordinary. We were climbing, sure, but that is to be expected in a trail race. Rocks became more and more prevalent, but the trails were mostly runnable for the first quarter mile.
After a quarter-mile, the climbs became so steep and the rocks so frequent that I began hiking rather than running up the slopes. I soon began to hike with my hands pushing on my quads at every step to assist me in the climb. I saw racers pausing on either side of the trail, taking a breather as they struggled up the very steep slope. Making a vow to keep moving, I slowly scrambled up the side of the mountain.
The trail eventually leveled out but got much narrower. Soon we were running, slowly, on a trail no wider than 18 inches. On our right, a steep wooded slope loomed. To our left, a sheer cliff dropped 100 feet down to the surface of a river.
And then the race got difficult.
We began climbing again. This time the slope was so steep, I felt like I could have reached out at shoulder height and touched the trail in front of me. Not only that, the trail was on a north-facing slope that retained most of its ice and snow cover.
We racers had to haul ourselves up the icy hill hand over hand using a rope secured to a tree about 100 meters up the mountain.
At the top of the hill, a wide smooth downhill double-track was our reward. This easy downhill lasted for a quarter of a mile before morphing into a steep, rocky downhill with many switchbacks.
At this point, I asked my hubby what time and distance were on his watch. I had forgotten to turn off the auto-pause function on mine. We were moving so slowly and traversing so many switchbacks, my watch constantly thought I was stopped and automatically paused. I had no idea where we were in the race. As it turned out, we were a little less than halfway.
There had been a few stream crossings in the race, but there were rocks strategically placed to hop across without getting soaking wet feet. Some of the trails were muddy, however, from the snowmelt of the previous week, so our shoes were caked in mud.
I looked ahead and saw an ominous-look stream crossing. The stream was about twenty feet wide, three feet deep at its middle, and rushing furiously over a rocky streambed. A log spanned the stream five feet above its surface. Balancing on the log was the only way to get across the 32-degree stream water.
Three or four runners ahead of me lined up to attempt the stream crossing. As I waited for my turn, I could see muddy scuffle marks on the log where previous runners had apparently dropped into the water. My legs felt shaky due to both the climb and fear. I swallowed hard and stepped out onto the log. My first thought was to go slowly, but I soon revised my strategy to cross the log as quickly as possible. I hopped off the log on the opposite side of the stream and waited for Bill to come across.
When we were both on the far side of the log, I finally exhaled.
There were more steep climbs and descents after that, including another slope that required a rope to ascend, but we had passed the most difficult sections of the course.
Eventually, we came out to the wide gravel road where the race began and headed for the finish line.
We crossed the line together, an hour and 52 minutes after we began. 1:52 is more than double the finishing time of my last road 10k, but it was good enough to win my age group.
We were rewarded with home-made sticky buns, tiny bottles of Fireball whiskey, hot coffee, and a blazing fire in the fire pit.
Since Hubby and I are not yet vaccinated, we masked up, grabbed our goodies, and made our way to an out-of-the-way picnic table. There we could safely drink our coffee and enjoy the delicious stick bun. We decided to save the Fireball for later. Or maybe never.
This was a well-organized, well-executed race. I am glad I got to participate. If you are in Central Pennsylvania in early spring and would like to run an extremely challenging trail race, this is the one for you. Just don’t get drawn in with the wicked race director’s false advertisement. “Beginner/intermediate” my foot!
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