|Red River Gorge, Appalachia, Kentucky|
Were it not for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, yesterday’s inaugural Rough Trail Ultramarathon in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge would not have been possible. In the mid 1960s the Army Corps of Engineers had started construction of a flood control dam that would have transformed the gorge into a lake. After Douglas, an outspoken environmentalist, joined the Sierra Club’s opposition to the dam, the project was put on hold and eventually the Red River was declared a National Wild and Scenic River protected by federal law. Today, the Red River Gorge is also designated a National Geological Area and a National Archaeological District. With approx.150 natural stone arches it ranks second only to Utah’s Arches National Park. The many rock shelters provided protection for the first people who lived in these woods 13,000 years ago.
|Start line of the Rough Trail 50k Ultra Marathon, Nov 14 2015|
The outstanding scenery makes the Red River Gorge a great location for a long trail race. I have this theory that the more scenic a course is, the higher the finisher rate for any given distance: it would be a shame not to see and experience the race in its entirety. This also explains in part why courses comprised of several shorter loops tend to have a much higher drop out rate: you have already seen everything there is to see, and all that’s left to keep you going is the race itself.
Of course weather can be a factor too. Yesterday, the conditions were absolutely perfect. Cool but not cold, brilliant sunshine, and no wind. Very little rain in the past two weeks meant that the numerous water crossings were easily passable – always something to keep in mind in a long event since wet feet are prone to blister. And the location in Appalachia was just far south enough that the trees on the warmer and sunny hilltops were still aglow in fall colors.
If all of this makes this ultra sound like a walk in the park that is one big deception. Although, most definitely there was a lot of walking involved. The gorge is about 600 foot deep and the trail dropped down to the bottom not fewer than nine times during the race, which meant it also climbed nine times back to the top of the rim.
In total this meant more than 6,000 foot of climbing. About half of it was run on the aptly named Rough Trail, a narrow and technical single track that was just about as gnarly as can be. Its more prominent features included narrow rock ledges, steep and unforgiving wood ladders, creek crossings, dense vegetation, and a root ladder descent over sandstone slick rock.
At the end we were also rewarded with some bonus distance: the total length of the course was almost 54km, about 7 percent extra fun. It did mess a bit with my head as I increased my pace towards the finish and found it quite difficult to maintain once I was past the 50km mark.
Thanks to race director Mike Whisman and all the volunteers for setting up a terrific new course in one of the most scenic areas east of the Mississippi. Oh, and also to the late William O. Douglas. He would have been pleased to see us run in the very wilderness he helped save.
Some bonus pictures below:
|There's a reason it's called the "Rough Trail"|
|The trail didn't always look like one but the marking leaves no doubt|
|Yes, this is still the right way|
|More steps and ladders|
|The gorge was worth saving|