Rock/Creek River Gorge 10.2 mile trail race
by Nathan Holland
Trail Running Gear: Patagonia Air Flow Shirt, Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts, Smartwool PhD Run Graduated Compression Socks, Salomon Sense Pro Shoes, Suunto Ambit 2 (HR) Watch, Camelbak Handheld Bottle, Salomon Soft Flask
Saturday, March 22, 2014:
The Rock/Creek River Gorge race is a beautiful course in the Prentice Cooper State Forrest just 15-minutes outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. There are two distances offered for this race, a 10.2-mile and a 6.5-mile option. The 10.2-mile race is predominately ran on some of the most amazing single track around town with only two small forest road sections throughout the entire course. Altogether, the 6.5-mile option has roughly 4.5 miles of single track and 2 miles of forest road. The 10.2-mile race starts 30-minutes before the 6.5-mile race to maximize the number of runners finishing around the same time and allow for a bigger celebration at the finish area.
This course offers stunning views of the Tennessee River Gorge, amazing bluff views, rock/stone features, gorgeous vegetation, and so much more. For those interested in running the infamous R/C StumpJump, this 10.2-mile race makes up the middle portion of that 50k race. With fast running sections, small-to-medium creek crossings, easy rocky quick running segments, and long slow technical boulder fields this race is one my favorite around Chattanooga.
The race has been around since 2001 and, due to the early spring schedule, it’s legendary for being plagued with unpredictable spring weather… making for interesting conditions on race day!
Race day was closing in quickly following my double trail race the weekend before (Double Trail Race Weekend report here). In training for the upcoming R/C Thunder Rock 100 I had participated in the Savage Gulf Marathon and Fall Creek Falls 50k on Saturday and Sunday the previous weekend. My legs were feeling okay and I knew that I would be able to “run” 10 miles without any issues, but I wasn’t sure if they felt good enough to “race” 10 miles. I wasn’t necessarily concerned with my overall position; I was just interested in improving my time from the previous year. In 2013 I ran the 10.2-mile race at ~1:19 in wet/cold conditions. I knew that with a dry day I should be able to shave some time off of that easily, baring no other issues.
By the time Saturday morning rolled around, the weather had shaped up to be fantastic. The temperatures were in the upper 40’s early that morning and expected to be into the 60’s by mid-morning. The normal monsoons that plague the River Gorge race in the past were nowhere to be seen. This was going to be a fantastic day for a race… hopefully the legs would hold out.
As we closed in on 8:30 AM all of the 10.2-mile runners made their way to the starting line. There was a great buzz on the starting line as more than 200 runners talked and shook out any last minute jitters before the race began. Anyone interested in having a shot a top position must exert a little extra effort on the 1/2-mile of forest road at the begging to get out front before funneling into the single track. As the race commenced there was a burst of energy from everyone jockeying for a spot in the lead pack.
The first 1/4-mile of the race is up a gravel forest road then it takes an immediate left down a dirt forest road, which brings runner down to the amazing single track. As we dumped onto the single I found myself in 7th position and running at a pretty good clip as we continued to descend through the 1st mile of the race. We hit a short 1/8-mile long climb along one of the beautiful bluffs. I took advantage of this climb to overtake a few runners before we started another 1-mile long descent. This descent has a good mix of short technical rocky sections, fast winding single track and gorgeous overviews of the Tennessee River Gorge. These beautiful overlooks continue all the way up to Snoopers Rock at 3.5 miles.
This is the first aid station for the 10.2-mile race and the only aid station for the 6.5-mile race. Coming through this aid station I was able to move up to the 3rd position. From Aid #1 we had roughly 3 miles of easy rollers, off camber single track, a few small water crossings, and some fun rocky sections before hitting the main climb of the race at Haley Road. Haley Road is a rocky jeep road that runners ascend to Aid #2 (6.5mi) before getting back onto the single track for more climbing to the top of the ridge line at ~7 miles. The Haley Road climb along with the single-track switchbacks give runners about a 300-foot climb over ~1/2-mile. The climb doesn’t sound like much but it always seems to be quite the lung buster and can really put a hurting on tired legs.
As I got off of the rocky jeep road and started on the single-track switchbacks I spotted the first two runners at the top of the climb running off around the corner. I knew that they had at least 4-5 minutes on me with a few switchbacks still ahead of me but I knew I was making up some ground so I put my head down and continued to push through my burning legs up the climb. At the top of this ridge runners have a nice ~1.5 miles of false flat running through some beautiful wooded sections of trails with practically no technical sections at all. This makes for a nice break before runners are dropped into the infamous rock garden. I wasn’t sure how the front two runners were feeling but I figured if I could catch either of them by the rock garden that I could put some distance on them through the technical section.
As I dropped into the rock garden and took the first hard right into the “good stuff” I got a quick adrenaline rush and seemed to kick any of the tired leg feeling I had from the previous 8+ miles. About half way through the rock garden I saw a runner up ahead. I felt at a slight advantage in the rock garden because I’ve ran this numerous times and have been lost/confused about the “right” way too many times so it’s easy enough for me to keep an eye on the rocks and still keep a good pace while staying on the correct path.
I could tell that the runner in front of me was not quite as comfortable through this section and figured he may not know the route through here as well. As I approached him I told him he was doing great and wasn’t much further until he was out of the rock garden… I heard him mumble something under his breath about being tired of the rock garden and looking forward to getting through it and back on more “runnable” trail.
As I came around him he jumped on my heels for a minute or so finding it easier to follow my route rather than spotting blazes and picking his own lines through the rock minefields. However, about halfway through the rock garden runners begin a steady climb out of the rock garden and must continue this while bounding from boulder-to-boulder. This worked to my advantage and I was able to put some distance between the now 3rd place runner. As I made the final climb out of the rock garden I still hadn’t seen the lead runner so I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to reel him in before the finish. Once out of the rock garden there is a very runnable, steady 1-mile uphill climb all the way to the finish line.
With about 1/2-mile to go I finally spotted the first place runner and realized that I probably wouldn’t be able to make up enough ground to catch him. However, I mustered up some extra energy and gave it my best effort but was unable to close the gap. I finished in 2nd place with a time of 1:12:49, 24-seconds behind the 1st place runner. I was extremely pleased to have shaved ~6 minutes off of my previous time and am already looking forward to next year to see how I can better my time again.
As always, I want to thank God for a great day and some amazing scenery on the R/C River Gorge course. I also want to give a big shout out to my family and Rock/Creek for support. Thanks to WildTrails, Rock/Creek and all the volunteers for putting together another great Rock/Creek race. For anyone who wants an amazing race experience and a great trail running series make sure that you check out the Rock/Creek Trail Series for the best trail races in the Southeast.
Until the next race,
Nathan D. Holland
2014 Rock/Creek Race Team