I ran the Rothrock Trail Challenge in State College, PA this past weekend. Rothrock is renowned for its punishing course: a “30K” trail course (down to “25K” this year) littered with rocks, roots, and some of the best scenery you can find in Pennsylvania. It was my second time running the event, and I was dreading it. My memory of the race was one of grueling hardship, ceaseless discharge, and raw feet. Looking back at those words I just wrote, I don’t know what I was so worried about: that all sounds hilarious.
Dan Ostrander and I drove down to State College on Friday morning, and arrived in time for packet pickup. The first thing we noticed when we got out of the car was the oppressive heat: it felt like we had missed State College and driven straight to Fiery Pits of Hell, PA. It was a two hundred meter walk from the pond back up to the car, and Dan and I were dripping sweat by the top. I started to get nervous about having nothing to carry. This is fine, I thought, with a dry, dusty throat.
We met up with the Leshers (Mike was running) at packet pickup, and decided to go out to dinner. Dan found a really great pizza place, called Faccia Luna. Dan and I got 14” pizzas, and each ate more than half. I thought back to my previous Rothrock experience, at which a large, indulgent, pre-race dinner resulted in the violent expulsion of many different digestive byproducts from many different parts of my body during the race. This is fine, I thought, stuffing my face full with pizza.
After dinner, Dan and I drove back to our hotel. On the way, he suggested we stop for ice cream. I had another brief PTSD flashback to last year’s race, and then quickly remembered that ice cream is the pinnacle of human culinary achievement, so any consequences would be well worth it. We stopped at Coldstone and got mondo ice creams. This is fine, I thought, as I dripped ice cream on my shorts.
After the ice cream, we returned to the hotel, and fell asleep shortly after getting ready for the morning. Five in the morning came quickly, and we got ready and headed out to the race. To say I was nervous was probably something of an overstatement. It was more a feeling of trepidation (I just looked up trepidation, and it turns out it’s the same thing, so….????). On the starting line, my mind was working at a million miles a minute, thinking of everything I should have done differently. I should have carried something – anything – with me. Damn! I should have worn different shoes – these ones usually develop blisters quickly. Shit! My brain was a hurricane of chastisement, regret, and childish amounts of expletives. Then the race started, and my brain shut down.
One good thing about having such a simple mind is that it’s really easy to turn off. As the race around me erupted into a chaotic frenzy of impatient run-walking to get past the starting line, the shitstorm in my head quieted, and I settled in uneasily near Dan for what I figured would be a long day.
The race starts on a paved access road, lulling the uninitiated into a false sense of security. They charge down the road, unaware or uncaring about the danger imminent on the course ahead. The veterans mingle among them, attempting a nervous balance between gaining a good position on the road and saving their energy for the first section of trail. Dan took it out conservatively, and Mike and I hovered near him, hoping some of his tactical aptitude would rub off on us. Before we knew it, we were off the road and on the trail.
We made it probably fifteen steps on the dirt before we had to stop and walk. This is the true beginning of the race, and a crucial part of the Rothrock experience. The trail bends to the right off the road and straight up into a long, steep, climb that gains a thousand feet over the course of a mile or so. A long ribbon of colorful runners stretched up the mountainside, with the occasional hero (idiot?) breaking rank to start running the hill. I was one of them last year. Not this year.
It was at this point I began to notice the weather. It was cool, low 60s, and cloudy, but very muggy. I couldn’t tell if the droplets running down my face were water or sweat, but there were a lot of them. As we continued our upward march, I could see fewer and fewer runners through the fog. I’m more of a sun guy, but these conditions were ideal for racing.
Five and a half years later, we reached the top of the hill, and began our descent. This was one of the changes to the course from the previous year, and the most noticeable. Last year, the calf-igniting climb was matched with a thigh-melting descent of almost equal magnitude down a river of loose rocks. This stretch was replaced by gentler switchbacks that descended only a portion of the distance. Last year, I would describe my overall mood at two and a half miles as “Inconsolable Despair” (which sounds worse than it is). This year it was “Pretty Okay”, and a lot of that was due to…well, a bunch of reasons, but the new course was a big one.
I mentioned earlier that the Rothrock course is littered with rocks, but that was somewhat misleading, as it implies that the trail contains anything else. Boulders, stones, cobbles, pebbles and knobs are ubiquitous on the course, coming in all shapes and sizes. The majority of the race is spent looking down at your feet, carefully picking a line, placing each step deliberately to avoid shredding your feet or twisting an ankle.
This is the ironic twist that perfectly complements the Rothrock experience: the scenery during the race is incredible, but sparing even one second to look at it could easily result in your demise. Because of this, the middle miles of Rothrock stretch and blur together, despite the constantly changing landscape. One minute I’d look up and find myself knee-deep in a sea of soft green ferns; the next, the path would be running through widely spaced conifers.
Every so often, the rocks fade out and the course becomes runnable dirt. On those heaven-sent stretches, I would be able to lengthen my stride and fly down the trail. I probably didn’t run all that quickly, but getting a break from the cramped quick-stepping through the rocks felt amazing. The wind on my face, the feeling returning to my hamstrings, and the softness of the trail always put a huge grin on my face. Appropriately, there were only a few miles of trail like that throughout the entire race.
At ten miles, another signature segment of the Rothrock course begins. The trail dips sharply down into a ravine, beginning a treacherous descent characterized by slick roots, loose mud, and wet rock. I say it was a treacherous descent, but it was really rappelling down a cliff face. There are even ropes set up to grab on to so that you don’t die when your feet inevitably fail you. I had two speeds on the descent: “Cautious Puppy Trying to Go Down Stairs” and “Free Fall”. I took a couple spills on the way down, including one butt-breaking fall that left me slow to get up. Luckily that fall bounced me back on to the trail: if I had bounced off the other side, I would have gone off the cliff and probably wouldn’t have gotten up at all.
This “downhill” ends at the boundary between the earth’s inner and outer core, where the third aid station is located. I guzzled some tragically nonalcoholic liquids and kept moving. Past the aid station was its raison d’etre, a jumbled pile of car-sized boulders stretching up into infinity. This is the only part of Rothrock I consider unrunnable (which doesn’t mean people don’t run it, of course). I spent the next thirty or so minutes scrambling up these boulders, trying to find the quickest path to the top. Anything that involves climbing up giant boulders or rock slabs instantly gets my blood going, and I was itching to break free of the crowd I was with and take the steepest, most direct line I could find. Fortunately, there were too many people in front of me to streak by without causing a great disturbance. I was forced to be responsible and conserve my energy as we climbed. I grumbled internally, but was grateful for this at the top.
After cresting the final set of boulders, the course runs along a ridge interspersed with dense patches of rocks. I could get around five steps on soft, grassy dirt, before being relegated to five short, quick steps over a bunch of rocks. By this point in the race, around thirteen miles in, I was still feeling pretty good, but I could tell my feet were slowing down. My steps were more desperate, and I could only find a place to put my feet when they were already on their way down. I took a few jagged rocks to the midfoot, kicked a few immovable stones, took a couple stumbles. Par for the course.
This is a good example of the unique way Rothrock engages your brain as well as your body. Every step needs to be analyzed, calculated, meaningful. If I hadn’t put any thought into it, I was pretty much guaranteed to trip and gore myself on an especially impudent rock; however, because I was already moving while planning, it was difficult to plan ahead. This creates an interesting situation where the most effective way to run the course is to keep your mind and body in lockstep. Maintaining that balance is difficult: one will often want to move faster than the other, but it’s important that they travel at the same pace. It’s an abstract concept, but it fits perfectly within the Rothrock aesthetic.
Now that the toughest parts of the race were behind me, I focused on completing the rest of the course as quickly and intelligently as possible. I ran mostly based on feel, walking when hills got steep or paths got rocky, and running everything else as fast as I thought I could go without risking a nasty tumble and dented face. There was a beautiful section of windy trail through another ocean of leafy green plants, and then a super spooky dark section of forest, which emptied out at the last aid station around fifteen miles or so.
Sticking an aid station two miles from the finish line of a race may seem a little unnecessary, but, like the previous aid station before the boulders, there is a reason. The final climb out of the last aid station is brutal. It’s not the longest hill, nor is it the steepest, but running it fifteen miles into a difficult race is no small feat. My legs were feeling the burn by this point, but I knew that this was the last climb. I just had to reach the top, and I was home free. I put my head down and trudged along.
The top of the hill came and went, and I began working my way down towards the finish line. The last mile or so before access road round two is a frightening and frustrating mixture of very runnable trail and rock fields. Again, I found myself switching speeds between “Meteor Falling to Earth” and “Careful Tiptoe Across Floor Covered in Mousetraps”. Soon enough, I found myself at the bottom of the rocky switchbacks and back on to the access road. From here it was a little less than a mile back, and I tore down the road towards the line. A few minutes later, I was over the line and in the pond, soaking my legs, about three hours and forty minutes after I started.
And with that, another Rothrock was in the books. I met back up with Dan and Mike at the end. They had dropped me at the first aid station and kept moving really well, finishing ten minutes in front of me. We chugged some root beers, mowed some ‘za, and hit the road.
For me, Rothrock has really been a tale of two races. Last year in 2014, I spent the first three hours of my race morning (including the first hour of the race) puking up what was in my stomach and shitting out what was in my intestines. This left me drained and dehydrated on an unforgiving course. On top of that, I ignored advice about what shoes I should wear. I decided to wear light, unprotected shoes. I paid for it. Dearly.
This year, like last year, I ate way too much food before the race; however, the blessings of the gods of glut and grub were with me, and I miraculously suffered no ill consequences. Wearing more protective shoes and socks kept my feet feeling fresh and improved my morale. With a shorter and easier course this year, and the experience from running the race last year, a lot of things fell in my favor this time around. Last year, it seemed a lot of things were working against me. I think I had a point to all that, but I forgot what it was? Maybe I just wanted a reason to write ‘Rothrock was a tale of two races’.