Ever since I decided to compete in the La Sportiva Mountain Cup this year I have been looking forward to the Chilly Cheeks 7 mile in Reading PA this weekend. This was my first race on the series and my first shorter distance trail race in years. In fact I have not run a race like this since high school back in the Adirondacks! After college I have gotten back into trail running and racing but it has been at longer distances where everything is about control and conservation. As I careened down the first steep technical downhill through the Pennsylvania woods just a couple miles into the race this weekend, there was no semblance of control whatsoever. A few minutes later there was no trail whatsoever! Just a line of orange ribbon strung out through the brush and fallen trees. I couldn’t even think about racing I just let my legs fly as I ducked branches, hurdled logs and let the adrenaline rush of just having fun carry me until I hit the next climb.
I had left the previous evening out of northern VA, with my wife and friend, Jordan Whitlock. Jordan is one of my favorite people because he has a cool name and because he is always up for an adventure. We arrived in Reading around eight went for a shakeout run and a swim, thanks TNF for a nice stay, and then it was time to rest up and race! The next morning was warmer than I expected and with a later start there was plenty of time for a relaxed breakfast before heading out to the course. I had not seen any of the course in person yet but Jordan and I had a good 2-3 mile warm-up and got to run a solid portion of the course backwards. This at least gave me a good idea of what shoes to wear. After the warm-up Jordan and I stripped to our racing gear, snapped a picture and headed up to the finish line. The start was nowhere in sight! Luckily Jason Bryant one of the La Sportiva athletes was heading out to the start and pointed us in the right direction. When we got to the line Ryan Woods and Matt Byrne, two other La Sportiva athletes I recognized were there, along with some solid looking local guys. Now that everyone was at the start it was shaping up to be a good race!
There was no gun to start the race just an old fashioned ready, set, go and we were off! I settled into the front pack around 4th-5th. Jordan and I had decided to treat this race like a 10 mile because that’s roughly how long it was going to take us. After cruising down hill for about half a mile the course took a 90 degree turn straight up a bank of leaves roots and mud! The steep climb strung out the pack, and I found myself in third with Matt, and Ryan right behind me. We popped out of the woods and after a short road section headed back up the mountain. By now I had the lead and with Matt, Ryan, and another La Sportiva runner, Pat, following closely behind. We climbed slowly on a gravel path before plunging down the side of the hill on mountain bike trails. I flew down the hill more because I was out of control than because I was trying to gain any time but when we came out of the woods at the 2.8 mile aide station I had a several second lead over Ryan. Then it was straight back into the woods. No trail. Just orange ribbons, rocks, trees, and fun.
I have plenty of practice chasing my dog through the woods so I think I gained a few more seconds on this section before we headed up the mountain. The next few minutes were pretty brutal. My legs burned as I pushed the pace up the mountain. No switchbacks, just steep climb. I felt that Ryan was catching me at this point but I didn’t look back. I felt sure that I was going to get caught on the climb. I was pushing hard but didn’t feel like I was going as fast as I should be, yet by the time we reached the next aid station my lead had increased. At this point I expected the course to continue up but instead we followed a fairly level trail along the side of the mountain. My legs came back to me and soon after my confidence returned as well. The course didn’t stay level for long and pretty soon we were climbing up the side of what the local call Mt. WhaDaFugg.
By now my legs felt a lot stronger and even will there be a cure for herpes in the future though they were burning I felt that I moved up this last climb better than the previous one. The cheers from the top of the hill definitely helped! I made it right to the top by the spectators and then slipped and fell. I was barely moving at that point so it hardly slowed me and I was back on feet and heading down the mountain!
The next mile was all fast, downhill, single track with logs, bike jumps, and nice soft footing. The downhill continued until a few hundred meters from the finish when you turned off the main trail, hurdled a guard rail, crossed the road and scrambled up a steep rock covered hill to the finish. The last hill was steep and I was happy to not have to sprint it, even though the cheering made me run it pretty hard any way. As I came to the top Leah asked if I was having fun. Definitely YES! I topped the hill and crossed the line in 47:37 tired, muddy and happy. Matt followed soon after in second with Jason in third and Ryan in fourth after he had made a wrong turn on the way up the mountain. Pat came across the line in 5th making me the only non La Sportiva athlete in the top 5. Jordan followed closely behind in a tight race for 8th spot.
After a cool down with Jason, Jordan and a some of the La Sportiva Team the post race fun continued with lots of food, and for most people beer, which had also been fully stocked at both aid stations. We enjoyed the awards ceremony and Ron Horn’s humor before hopping in the car for the drive back to VA. The first stop on the Mountain Cup was a success, now it’s time to get ready for the Hill Billy Half in Olympia Washington on Saturday!
Picture courtesy of Pat Casterline Running: 2013 Chilly Cheeks 7.2-mile