“Trail shoes or road shoes?” This was the question I asked myself after registering for the Run to the Rock 10K in Hamburg. The course would take us mostly over groomed gravel trail and some service roads where my Hoka Arahi’s would be fine but there was a couple miles of trail involved and I was unsure how severe that would be. A young couple emerged from the car next to me also wearing white 10K bibs. They were having the same dilemma but neither had run this course before. He chose trail shoes, she chose road shoes. That didn’t help my decision. In the end, I went with the road shoes. I like them much more than my current trail shoes and decided I’d muddle through the off-road sections.
Run to the Rock is part of the Blue Mountain Wildlife Trail Series. Apparently the series has been on-going for the better part of 15 years. I’ve only been a casual trail runner so hadn’t really paid attention but if Saturday’s event was any indication I could do more of these, especially since my wonky right foot has forced my early retirement from the marathon.
I stumbled across Run to the Rock while searching for races Friday evening. I wanted to find a local event but preferred something longer than the ubiquitous 5K. You can’t swing a dead cat in the summertime without hitting a 5K and this includes the Run to the Rock event that also has a 5K and 2.5K. A glance at the course map for the 10K piqued my interest. It was basically a gentle run along the Schuylkill River and New Kernsville Lake in Hamburg, PA. Sure there would be some hairy looking trail sections but how bad could that be?
Author’s Note: There a dam on the Schuylkill River in Hamburg that forms a narrow lake. Who knew? Second Author’s Note: Despite living less than a mile from the river for nearly 30 years, I still can’t spell “Schuylkill” without googling it.
After settling on my normal road shoes I headed out along the Schuylkill River Trail for a brief warm-up. As I ran, I realized how lucky we are to have such awesome trails these days.
The SRT is an extensive trail network that makes its way from Pottsville all the way down to Center City Philadelphia. Once just a dream of a small organization, the trail is becoming more and more of a reality each year with new sections being completed and the few remaining gaps quickly filling in. This despite the boom and bust of State and Federal funding that goes on-going changes to the political climate. If you are a runner, walker, or cyclist who enjoys using these trails make sure you support the organizations that make things happen. The Rails To Trails Conservancy is a major player in this space and there are several local organizations that help fund and maintain the SRT.
After my warm-up, I hovered around the start waiting to race. I looked around and noted the usual mix of serious runners ready to pound out a fast 10K, the fit training runners who were good runners but not necessarily serious racers, and then the casual runners and general public who who walk/jog the event. Some were equipped with extra nutrition and hydration kits. I guess 10K is a long way to some as it once would have been to me. I’m not exactly sure where I fall these days. I guess I am somewhere between the dead-serious racers and the dedicated runners. I’d like to think I’m still fast but know that probably isn’t reality at least at the moment.
We had a beautiful morning to run although it was a skosh warmer than expected. Temps hovered in the high 60s or low 70s, and the cottony clouds floated overhead. The wind was supposed to pick up later but was calm at the race start. Considering the near-monsoon state we’ve been enduring, it was a pleasant change.
The 5K and 10K events would share a start and the 2.5K would setoff the opposite direction. The race director got everyone lined up and stood between the groups to give the start commands. Shortly after 9:00am we were off.
We headed South along the SRT. I had been chatting with the young couple parked next to me and they both were just ahead of me. We had all started near the front. We ran a couple hundred yards South and then around a curve and took a bridge across the river. There were a couple folks at the pointy end of the field who I could tell would be contenders and they, predictably, disappeared in the distance.
My current race paces are only a vague guess so I figured I’d run to effort and hope not to blow up. As usual in these smaller events the field sorted itself out quickly and I found myself following the the female half of the parking lot couple. She was about 50 yards in front of me. We continued along the trail for the first couple miles. The only real position changes for the day came here. A younger, shirtless gentleman clearly started out a bit too fast and faded backward getting passed by the woman in front of me and then by me. I also heard some footsteps behind me and got passed by an older runner who introduced himself later as Donny. I found out later Donny’s full name was Don Mengel and he is a very high-caliber local runner. He didn’t even look like he was working hard when he passed me. I certainly felt like I was working hard. Donny passed passed the girl and then remained just ahead of us the rest of the way. Though I couldn’t catch him I felt pretty good having kept him in sight for the race.
Shortly after Donny passed, the course took a hard right turn and plunged into a green jungle. The race director had warned of rocks, roots, logs, and green briar and this section of the course didn’t disappoint. I had held a 6:50ish pace for the first couple miles but the jungle required slow and steady. It also required ducking under down trees, climbing over logs, bushwhacking through briars and weeds, and fighting off a pack of rampaging orcs with nasty looking iron scimitars. I might be exaggerating a little bit but I do think I saw a Hobbit at one point.
I momentarily passed the girl on the trail section. She clearly out classed me on the open trail but ran a bit cautiously through the heavy bush. As we clambered over several down trees I commented that I left my chainsaw in my other running shorts. It was slow-going for a bit including scaling a rocky bank that required hands and feet.
I remember seeing a 42 minute time for the winner from the previous year. That’s a respectable 10K on the road let alone with downed trees, Hobbits, and Orcs.
The heavy bush didn’t last terribly long and in short order the young lady was on my heels again. I let her go by at a wide turn knowing she’d be faster on the open trail. Suddenly, a runner was coming back the other way. We were nearly at the Rock.
The Rock, as you can guess, is the main feature of the Run to the Rock 10K. It is a big rocky precipice that overlooks the river at the North end of New Kernsville Lake. Cleverly, the race director stationed a photographer across the river so runners have the opportunity to get a quick photo snapped before turning and heading back toward the finish. I stopped and waited for the lady to get her picture so as not to photo bomb her. When it was my turn, I ascended the rock giving the photographer a big thumbs up. (I don’t anticipate that picture being available at the time of publication but it would be cool if it was!)
After the photo opp, the return course branched off from the trail to the rock so we weren’t going head to head with those still on the way to the rock. In fact, we didn’t have to bushwhack at all on the way home. Once we navigated the muddy trail out of the woods we followed the river trail and service road the whole way back.
For me the most difficult part was revving the engines back up to a fast pace after tip-toeing through the jungle. This is evident from my splits. The first two miles on open trail were both well under 7:00 pace. Mile three included the beginning of the jungle and slowed to 8:17. Mile four was jungle, the hand-over-hand climb, and the stop at the rock for pictures and all that dragged the pace down to 9:58. The last two miles were mostly back on open trail and I was unable to get back to a sub-7:00 pace. It did get hot but it was just difficult to get the feet turning over at a faster pace after the jungle dance.
The real speed killer came at the end. There is a steep slope up to the bridge back across the river. My legs filed a formal protest when we had to climb up that but I pushed ahead anyway. As always at the end of a race, I’m pretty sure they move the finish while we are out on the course just to mess with us. After coming off the bridge it seemed to take forever for the Finish banner to come in sight. I crossed the line with 48:nn something on the clock. Good enough for 2nd place in my age group and definitely near the pointy end of the race.