Salt Lick Trail is a Southern Illinois hidden gem. Located on the 600+ acres of Salt Lick Point Land and Water Reserve, Salt Lick Point is the name of one of the bluffs you will tackle during the Monroe County YMCA-HTC Center Illinois Ozarks 10K Bluff Trail Run. This bluff, which is the highest point in Monroe County at 810+ feet, will challenge your lungs and quads. But the reward at the top is worth it! The area also includes two other trails, Johnson Trail and Newman Trail, which combined with Salt Lick Trail offers over 5 miles of challenging trail running.
While these trails are typically quiet and peaceful on early weekend mornings, the scene is much different on the last Saturday of October every year. Runners from all over the area gather to tackle these technical trails and steep climbs. And thanks to all the hard work done by the Salt Lick Point Stewardship Committee members and volunteers throughout the year to keep these trails maintained, it’s no wonder runners come back to this race year after year.
I am one of those runners who makes this event a “must do” every year. And in the last few years, they’ve added a free kids race that allows my two boys (ages 5 and 3) to participate as well.
On October 29, 2016, I arrived at Borsch Park with my husband, Ryan, and my parents, who came along to watch the kids while we ran. Parking is close, packet pick up is organized, volunteers are friendly — and bathrooms have actual flushing toilets! What could be better?
We got checked in along with several other members of our multi-sport team, Black Ops Racing, and some of us utilized the free stretching service offered by Underwood Chiropractic. At 9:00 a.m., we got the kids ready to toe the line for their race. The kids race started on the same road as the 10k, climbed up a big hill to give them a small dose of what we were about to encounter, and then came back down to the finish area. My little guy is pretty timid and insisted that I run alongside of him. He did a great job, and I got a nice warmup for my race! The kids were treated to a medal as they crossed the finished line.
As soon as the kids race wrapped up, it was time to pass the baton to the adults racing the 10k. After a great speech with some well-deserved recognition of key people that make this race happen, followed by the national anthem, it was go time.
My race nerves were higher than usual this year, as I was just coming off a long layoff due to a stress fracture in my femur. I didn’t feel prepared for what lay ahead of me, but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to try. The race began with a 1-mile footrace up a service road to Limestone Lane, around the parking lot and then to the trail head. As expected, I went out way too fast on this stretch, which made that long and steep ascent up to Salt Lick Point absolutely miserable! While most of the runners were in tight packs for the first mile, this climb quickly began to separate the field.
The next section was mostly downhill along the Newman Trail and included a few steep drops alternating with some narrow switchbacks. I was grateful for the dry conditions that day because the final descent can be very tricky with any mud or snow on the trail!
Once I got to the bottom of the Newman Trail, we were directed to hang a left onto the flat portion of the Johnson Trail. As I was running alongside the massive limestone boulders, I couldn’t help but think this would be a perfect place to come hike with the family. The views are just spectacular… for another day!
The flat section was a nice “break,” but it was hard to enjoy it knowing that I was about to be faced with the toughest part of the course. As I came out of the Johnson Trail and through a parking lot, I grabbed a sip of water from the aid station right before entering “the stairs.” They seem very unassuming at first glance, but don’t be fooled: These “stairs” are steep!
A lot of walking occurred on this section for me, and the ascent never seemed to end. Just when I thought I was at the top, I was faced with yet another climb! When I finally reached the top, I found myself back at the junction of the Salt Lick Trail and Newman Trail. Finally, I thought, it’s all downhill from here.
This section was fast and FUN, as it goes back down the Salt Lick Trail that we climbed up at the start of the race. As I exited the trailhead, there was another friendly volunteer directing runners to turn right to follow the paved Limestone Lane back to the service road towards the finish line. By this time, my quads were screaming and there was a lot of pressure to keep a good pace along the final paved stretch to the finish line. As I neared the park I was greeted by more volunteers, and some of the speedier guys who had already finished the race and were headed back out for more!
After my finish, my boys and I hung around the finish line and cheered for the rest of our teammates as they crossed. We also thoroughly enjoyed all the homemade goodies provided by the race volunteers. (This might be my favorite part of the race!)
Once all the runners had crossed the finish line, they began the awards ceremony. The finisher medals (or “woodens,” as they called them) were BEAUTIFUL and hand-crafted by YMCA volunteers using wood cut from sassafras trees on the nearby Illinois Ozarks Nature Preserve. While it wasn’t a course PR for me, I crossed the finish line with a time of 52:53, which was good enough to bring home the 1st Overall Female award!
I look forward to returning to Salt Lick Point to tackle this race again next year. Enjoying a beautiful day on the trails all while supporting two local non-profit organizations (the Monroe County YMCA-HTC Center and the Salt Lick Point Stewardship Committee) is a win-win. It’s definitely on my must-do list every season!
Author: Jacqueline Sommer
Photo: Mike Fricke