The Russell Fork River, flows through southwest Virginia and southeastern Kentucky and over time has carved a canyon into Pine Mountain now called, Breaks Canyon. Each weekend in October the Corps of Engineers releases water held in the Flanagan Reservoir into the Pound River and the flows jump from an average 200 cfs to 800-1000cfs. This annual release turns the otherwise sleepy town of Elkhorn City, KY into boater Mecca. Since I happen to live with a boater, I find myself camping and hanging out with our paddling family each year, either in the Breaks Interstate Park or at “Rat Hole”, a riverside camping area.
I’ve had fun exploring the trails inside the park and also bushwhacking down to the rapid El Horrendo.
The trails are gnarly and steep as they plummet into the Russell Fork
Gorge. The Pine Mountain Trail, across
the river from the Breaks, runs along the Kentucky-Virginia border following a
geological fault line high above the river.
|El Horrendo Class V Rapid- Russell Fork River|
I had never made it over to that side of the river to explore so when I heard about Cloudsplitter I was intrigued, but scared. Knowing the difficulty of the trails I had been on, I could only assume Pine Mountain would be equally as bad. The website warned of the difficulty, offering a generous cutoff of 40 hrs for the 100 miler and bragged of a 2,000’ gain in the first 5 miles. They offered a 25k, 50k, and 100k as well, all out and back on the Pine Mountain Trail from the Elkhorn City Baseball Park.
I had signed up for the Odyssey 40 miler in September knowing that we would be doing our annual Russell Fork family campout the first weekend in October. I wanted to fit a race in before Masochist in November, a tune up if you will. I hadn’t raced since Promise Land in April so I had surely forgotten how, right???? We had an unexpected death in the family and a funeral to attend the weekend of Odyssey so Cloudsplitter became my backup plan. We were already headed that way so it worked out perfectly.
We decided it would be best to camp in the Breaks Park Friday night to avoid the late night party scene at Rat Hole. I slept very well, only waking once around 2am to the sounds of heavy wind/rain (please let that stop before 8am!). We woke at 6am, broke camp and rolled into Elkhorn City with plenty of time to check in and get geared up. Luckily the rain had moved on and it was shaping up to be a beautiful fall day. I said some quick hellos to the few people I knew there who were all running longer distances, the gun was fired, and we were off!
After a couple of turns on the pavement we hit a gravel road and then the climbing began as we connected with the Pine Mountain Trail. Basically an old rutted out, rocky, double track road, it reminded me a lot of the section on the Iron Mountain Trail we call Mock Hollow. It wasn’t easy climbing, and I imagined it wouldn’t be much fun on the return trip either.
The PMT is marked with green blazes and somewhat tricky to follow at times. The group I was running with came to an intersection at the same moment the lead guys came running back to that same intersection after taking a wrong turn. There was a large set of boulders sadly covered in graffiti and several paths shooting off in different directions, a tree with a green arrow, and a bunch of confused runners. After a couple minutes of bumbling around we figured it out and continued on, I made a mental note, hoping not to make the same mistake on the return trip.
|Soup Beans, Rat Hole Campfire, Sunday River Run|
The sounds of an ATV that had been looming in the background for awhile finally caught up with us and passed only to stop a short distance ahead. They dropped off a small cooler and water jug and turned around… guess that’s supposed to be the first Aid Station @ 5.3mi??? I think one person in our group stopped, but most continued on thinking they would just hit the next stop at 8.0 miles.
I had assumed this would be a lot of steady up then hit the turn around and it would all be downhill from there! Sort of a mini Mount Mitchell. I quickly learned this would not be the case! There were a lot of steep ups and downs, nothing long, but nowhere to really get into a good rhythm. Finally we were on top of the ridge line and things started to open up into some amazing views! check em out here: Race Photos. I’m glad I didn’t carry my phone or I would still be out there taking pictures. Running across huge slabs of rock, views of Virginia to your left and Kentucky to your right, the VERY cool fall breeze whipping around, it was pure bliss!
Pike County is one of the nation’s largest coal & natural gas producing counties and evidence of that was all around us during the race. We passed by gas pipe lines, ran under giant high voltage electric power line transmission towers, and saw a giant mountain top removal site, as the mighty Russell Fork glistened in the sun below.
Speaking of energy, I began coming up on some folks who were starting to drag a bit and questioning when we would ever get to an aid station. Any idea of mileage I asked? “14 according to my watch,” he said. What!! We’re almost to the turnaround for the 50K, did you see the 8 & 12 mile aid stations?? Nope!
Luckily I had switched from my original plan to carry a handheld at the last minute and went with my hydration pack, because here we were 14 miles into the run and had not seen an aid station. I questioned whether I would even know I had come to the turnaround point if no one was there. We continued climbing and a short time later saw the 50K leader coming down the trail! That’s a good sign!
There was an aid station set up at Birch Knob (15.6) so I took of my pack, filled my nearly empty bladder, pulled out some more GU’s and a pack of natures bakery fig bars, had a sip of ginger ale and headed out. I felt as if I had been there way too long, but quickly reasoned it was ok since it was the only stop so far.
It was great seeing everyone on the way back. Cari and Netta were both looking great and still smiling! People were super nice and encouraging, but also very curious how much further for the aid station. I knew it was going to be lonely on the way back so I enjoyed the passing company while I had it and then focused on moving forward. Someone told me I was 10 min. behind the second guy so when I felt lazy and caught myself walking on easy stuff I would pretend I could possibly catch him.
I felt much better on the return as far as following the trail, the aid stations at 5.3, 8 and 12 had been setup so I grabbed a cookie at 12, rolled through 8, and asked for soda at 5.3, but they had none. I caught up to some of the 25k runners and enjoyed chatting with them a bit, but was mostly super stoked to be running healthy and feeling good. I dropped back onto the gravel road and wasted a minute trying to decide which way to go…. Down looks good :)
Thankfully at the pavement there was a sign with an arrow and each turn through town was marked! I had just been following on the way out and was worried I wouldn’t be able to navigate back to the finish so this was a relief. I could see the ball park and it was a downhill finish! I crossed the field and could see the clock, with no time on it? Someone at the finish handed me a medal and I wandered around a bit regrouping. I realized after looking down at the medal, they thought I was a 25K finisher, so I asked to switch and told them I thought I was the first female/3rd overall in the 50k? They couldn’t pull the times up, but agreed that only two other guys had finished the 50k so I received my award then headed to the car.
The guy parked next to me, Nathan Snyder had also run the 50k, so we shared our thoughts on the race then walked over to get some food: A huge cauldron of soup beans hanging over a fire, bbq that had been smoked there overnight, homemade cornbread. We sat in the grass waiting for others to finish and were joined by the 4th place finisher Tom Atkins, who oddly enough was also from Abingdon, but lives in Oregon (small world). After sitting there for quite a while we began to get a little concerned that no one else had finished? They had to hit the road and I decided to grab a shower since I would be camping another night.
It was quite chilly out so that hot shower felt fantastic even if it did happen to be in the most bizarre, old school locker room ever! As I walked back to the car I was happy to see some more 50k runners coming in before I headed back to reunite with the paddlers back at Rat Hole.
There are certainly some things to be ironed out as with any first time event, but I’m sure Cloudsplitter will continue to grow. If you’ve never traveled to this area, I would highly recommend it. The hospitality was unbeatable and it was great to see so much community support. Everyone wanted to tell you how much they loved their home and those mountains we were playing on and were happy to share it! With the Pine Mountain Trail, Great Eastern Trail, The Breaks Interstate Park, and the Russell Fork Gorge as well as many other paddling/hiking opportunities hopefully this community can lean more towards an outdoor recreation based economy as coal production slows.