Fire On the Rocks

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!

You can find the places I link up here.

ย 

62 comments

  1. Congratulations on winning in your age group, Laurie!
    Wow, that sounds like a really tough 10K. I love the way you described your adventure. I wonder if anyone fell into that river?
    Oh, and a good tip on the auto-pause function. I must remember to switch it off for my upcoming trail race (that also includes streams… but less cold ones).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Catrina. I think most other women my age have more sense than I do. They would not have registered for this race. I think some people did fall in the river. That log was the scariest part of the race for sure! Good luck on your upcoming trail race.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Omg. I think I changed my mind about trail racing. Lol.

    Sounds like some of my recent hikes.

    At your hubby was by your side

    So kudos to you and congrats on your ag award.

    Btw. Fireball is a standard in our house. My hubby loves it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That sounds like a difficult race, but you did it with style. I don’t know that I’d drink the Fireball whiskey either. I like whiskey, but not flavored ones. I don’t know that you need to know that but I’m feeling wordy right now. ๐Ÿฅƒ

    Liked by 1 person

    • The bottle of Fireball is still sitting unopened. I think this weekend may be the time to give it a try. I have never tasted flavored whiskey before and I am curious. Thanks for your words, Ally! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My husband loves fireball. He also loves inline racing. But only does one race now in September. I only race to the liquor cabinet. I love how you set up the post, explaining how difficult it was and then saying….and then it got difficult. Ha! Way to go!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. WOW. I know race directors can be misleading but that sounds downright cruel to say it’s beginner friendly. I was scared of falling just reading your descriptions of how narrow that trail was with steep ledges on either side… I’m afraid of heights/falling so I likely would’ve been paralyzed in fear trying to accomplish that. That log just sounds downright dangerous. I’m pretty sure I would’ve wanted the fireball before attempting that! Props to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tracy, that’s just the mindset of trail race directors. The trail with the high ledge was really similar to the one I ran in a 25k near there – the Hyner Challenge. It might have even been the same trail. I definitely would have wound up in the stream if I had the fireball before the log! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  6. My heart was in the my mouth from the beginning of the post and then you said “And then the race got difficult.” It was hardly child’s play before you made that statement Laurie – it sure sounded rigorous! And all that in 25 degrees! At least you got to participate in a 10K run, while still being immersed in a pandemic, unlike last year when all the races fell like dominoes and you won for your age category … I’d say that was a good day.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow, sounds like a tough challenge! More like an OCR than a trail race, lol. Great job and congrats on the AG win. BTW, I do a log crossing to cross a creek on my trails. It’s always a relief when I get to the other side!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Wendy. It was very tough but fun. I would do it again. I saw a photo of you on the log this week. You have nerves of steel! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  8. Why are RDs so cruel? And trail RDs in particular?

    It sounds as though you actually enjoyed it, though, Laurie. You are made of tougher stuff than me! Congrats on winning your AG.

    It reminds of our hike this week. It was very short, about a mile. It took us I think about 40 minutes, LOL! There were some steep uphills & downhills (nothing like you encountered, of course), there was lots of very muddy, slipper areas, and there was even a little bit of snow of ice to maneuver across. Thankfully no creek crossings, although we could hear them so that was nice.

    Of course we did have Bandit with us, too, so that always slows us down — which may have been a good thing for my husband. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ha ha… beginner? With stream crossings and hauling yourself up a hill with a rope??? I would hate to see what the “advanced’ course would look like!
    Congrats on your age group win! Sound like a fun and adventurous day.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Whoa! This sounds insane! While I am all in for the cinnamon bun and Fireball, my legs were getting shaky just reading about this. Congratulations on your AG win! It was a super intense one, for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. On my goodness! You got me at Sticky Buns, and Loving Husband would be so thrilled with the whiskey.

    I feel your aggravation about the “Beginner/Intermediate” labelling …. I mean, what is that supposed to do for our self-esteem????? The other thing that really gets me are when cheerleaders shout: “almost there” (and I really do appreciate their support), but it seems like an age before I actually see the finish line.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! I did eat the sticky bun. Still have the whiskey. Haven’t worked up the nerve to drink that yet. Trail race directors have a weird sense of humor. It was definitely NOT a beginner-level race. I know what you mean about “almost there”! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  12. Wow! Well done Laurie, that sounded tough! It’s lovely that you and your hubby do it together. Teamwork.
    Enjoy the rest of your weekend. ๐Ÿ™‚ #MMBC

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much. I like doing the really tough races with my hubby. It’s much easier mentally doing something hard with a person you love! ๐Ÿ™‚ Hope you had a great weekend!

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  13. I almost didnโ€™t read your post because I generally donโ€™t like recaps but Iโ€™m glad I did.
    First off, great play by play. I felt like I was there and holding my breath.
    Second, what a challenging race! I wouldโ€™ve turned around at the log. Yikes!
    Great job on the AG win!!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I confess I had to google YakTrax. It’s not something we ever need here in Alabama. ๐Ÿ™‚ You’re a beast, Laurie! I wish I had your legs and your drive to persevere on your runs. Congrats on winning your age group! You always win in my book.

    Liked by 1 person

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