Wanted to log a long trail run, plus the exploring bug got to me a little bit, so traveled up to Louisville, KY for the infamous Lovin' the Hills 50k. I once heard Rob Youngren mention that this sucker is even tougher than the Mtn Mist or the Mt Cheaha race, so of course that was a factor as well! And no joke, Rob wasn't kidding; the LLTH is probably one of the toughest 50k races I have ever seen. The only events of similar distances from my experiences were the now-defunct Carmel Valley 50K and Quad Dipsea races in California.
I have never driven north of Nashville, TN on I-65, so all new territory for me as I passed across the TN/KY state line. Not enough time to visit Mammoth Cave National Park, but did manage an all-too-short quick stop at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site before it closed. Hope to get back to each of these and spend more time in the future. After bashing my way into downtown Louisville on a Friday afternoon, picked up my race packet at Ken Combs Running Store before checking into my hotel south of the city.
Now, as I am driving up to Louisville and seeing landscape flatten out a bit, beginning to wonder what all the hype over the difficulty of the course. I mean, having read race reports from Rob Youngren, Susan Donnelly, and others, I am expecting some pretty hellacious terrain, but not seeing it anywhere. Bu then I pulled off the interstate south of town and drove a mere 3m. Then the backroad immediately climbed up into the Jefferson Memorial Forest and holy cow, now I know what they were talking about! Once up on the plateau, there were multiple steep, narrow draws and spurs coming off in all directions. No major elevations changes, just that you could tell the trails would climb/descend those terrain features time and again.
So next morning I woke 0540 at hotel, pulled on my gear, and walked down to the lobby to eat some breakfast. It was a dang trail runner convention in there! Rob Apple and Susan Donnelly were quietly, along with another dozen folks. I cracked a joke out loud, “So, y’all are here for the Snowman 5k downright, right?” To which I got a mix of chuckles and light derision from the crowd)
The race started 0800 in the cold, about 25deg with some breeze. Plenty of snow still about, kept the trail fairly runnable with no mud for the first 2-3 hours. The pack moved along steady for a mile until we hit the first single track and it was game-on. Hard left turn and narrow descent down a 12” wide trail with scattered tree roots. Turned out not to be a major descent, crossed over a creek bed at the bottom in few minutes, but made an immediately climb back up the other side, setting a pattern for the day of coming off one ridge and climbing to the next. Now it is not that the Forest is amazingly technical or rocky like Monte Sano or Cheaha or Lookout Mtn, but that the trails are narrow, canted, and never ever flat! But the first leg went quite smooth overall, trail was in good shape and the pack I was in moved along steadily. Went thru A/S #1 just under an hour and proceeded over to leg 2 on the Yost Trail towards the east. Only irritating part was having my sunglasses keep fogging up on the climbs (tucked under my skull cap), then can’t see out of them when I needed most on the ensuing descents. So had to park them on my head for the until about Mile 20 when it was warm enough to pull off the skull cap.
Passed over a paved road about Mile 7, then a ½ mile of the course was roughed, no real trail, so had to slow down some on the climb and took some sawbriar cuts. The second leg was still in good shape, lots of packed snow but no mud (yet). Watched Dave Corfman (from OH) slip right off the trail as it traversed a slippery rock face; the smooth rock had run-off covering and he just went down the side. It is what I am now calling a “Jeff Bryan”, so-named for Jeff Bryan of Tallahassee after watching him unexpectedly sliding off the Cold Springs about 1mi into this year’s Mtn Mist 50K!
With so many twists, turns, climbs, and descent on the second leg, it was only the sun position that gave me any clue where I was at on the course. A/S #2 at Mile 12 kind of just popped out of nowhere, a welcome respite for 200m in the parking lot until resuming the trail. We backtracked on the course about a mile towards the west until reaching the major intersection of the race; Leg 2 goes to the east (which I had just finished), whereas Leg 3 (18mi) goes to the west. Turns about the first dozen runners got to the intersection in the morning and turned West (to Leg 3) instead of East (to Leg 2). Thus they not only got ahead of the aid station crews out to the west, but upon getting back to that intersection with about 1.5mi to the finish area (off a bit to the South), they were ordered to continue heading East and finish Leg 2! Ouch!
The first part of Leg 3 was some enjoyable and challenging trail work. Made a long descent to the Jefferson Memorial Forest Welcome Center, crossed the road, then ground up a long single-track climb back onto the ridgeline. Still covered in the snow and on a small cant, the narrow trail demanded your full attention to not slip off and go careening to the bottom. But we eventually gained the major ridge top of the race on the Siltstone Trail, some enjoyable running with relatively minor climbs and descent and much less snow up top. But the worst was yet to come as midday approached, the temperature pushed towards 50deg and the snow began a major melt-off
Spent a good part of this section jawboning with Dave Corfman and Dave Krekeler from Cincinnati area. We were climbing and talking about techniques to beat the hills when they mentioned Dave Riddle busting the course record at Stone Steps. Of course, the name is a bit familiar to me, so we waxed eloquent about the good Mr. Riddle for the next mile or two: what brought him to Cinci, success at JFK50 and Mtn Mist, etc. I stopped to take a leak and Dave left me way behind, ended up finishing about 10-15min ahead of me.
I was started to feel the fatigue and pain in my left glute-hammy as I approached the Scotts Gap aid station around Mile 20. The sun was full out now, so pulled off my skull cap and slid my Oakleys back on; the Rx glasses help a lot, easier to see the fine details of the trail ahead of me! But alas, by now major pieces of the trail are turning to muddy mush, slowing things down some more. Beyond Scotts Gap is a 3mi CCW loop that climbs straight up for ½ mile, makes a descent along a short ridge before turning left down another sharp, switch-back descent that is nothing but slick, watery mud by now. The 3mi loop took nearly an hour, too much short-stepping and walking to avoid going down hard or sliding off the trail. Once back at the Scotts Gap a/s I discovered the young lady behind was the first place woman. The discovery that I might not get “chicked” today was motivating; forgive the obviously chauvinistic term, but it is no lie that I moved smartly on the long return leg towards the finish.
Alas, by now the long climb out of Scotts Gap back onto the ridge line was hampered by long stretches of very slushy-muddy trail. Tough to make a good climb of it when you get even get solid, reliable traction. But made myself smile and enjoy the fine scenery and great course, eventually gained the ridge where the trail went smooth again and did some running up there. I was running completely solo by now, the only people I saw were those going outbound towards the west as I head back east. It is a 10k stretch from Scotts Gap back to the Welcome Center, single-track all the way. Lots more mud as the course came off the ridge down into another creek bed then climbed back up. Eventually hit some snowy patches again that made things a little faster but just a treacherous on the 12” wide slippery trail
Ground my way back to the major race intersection at about 6.5hrs and turned south for the finish area 1.5mi away. Another steady descent along some an albeit wider but still very muddy trail. Came turn a major right-hand switchback with another gent that had come up behind me. I went all the way around the switch, but this dude cuts if off inside me on the turn, slides down the switch about 10’ shy and just left a huge scar in the muddy switch where his feet slid down. What an ass. He was gone, I wouldn’t have caught him anyway, but irritating nonetheless. The last 1/2mi to the finish was all winding climb, little running possible for a nice finish line photo!
Complete the course in 6hr, 50min, 19sec according to official records. Finisher prize was a wooden ornament and Colorado Birch tree sapling that I planted with the boys at home. Overall, toughest 50K I have seen in the South. One of the Horton races in VA may be tougher, but LLTH beats Cheaha in my opinion. Range of finish times all slower than Mtn Mist or Cheaha. I think the Carmel Valley 50k and I ran in California in 2004 were even tougher than this, but only because the climbs/descent were much longer in the California Coastal range around Monterey.
Got myself cleaned up inside, enjoyed a couple of bowls of homemade with Dave Corfman inside the Horine Center (race HQ). Eventually got on the road about 1700 EST, grabbed my McD’s coffee on I-65, made it home around 2030 CST.