“Man, that was brutal.”

If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times at the finish line of the 2015 Rockin’ Rockwoods 53K/Half Marathon Trail Run in Wildwood, Mo.

“You’re such a sadist for putting together that course,” another runner panted to race director Shalini Kovach.

Built by a Boy Scout Troop in the mid 1960s, Green Rock Trail in Rockwoods Reservation is a favorite training ground for many St. Louis-area ultra runners because of its technical terrain and impressive vertical gain. While there have been unsanctioned “fat ass” runs hosted on the trail, this was the first organized and timed race held here, with more than 80 participants accepting the challenge.

Rockin’ Rockwoods offered two distances: a 20k (half marathon) with 2,300 feet of elevation gain and a 53k with 5,300 feet of gain — impressive numbers by Midwestern standards. The trail was dry and temperatures held at 50 degrees as the sun began to rise for the 7:00 a.m. start. Shortly beforehand, Kovach gathered runners for a pre-race briefing, including the recitation of a pledge, “If I get lost, injured or die, it is my own damn fault.”

The course started with a series of steep climbs and descents, totaling more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain in just the first 4 miles. I chose to run the hills, not walk — a decision that would haunt my performance during the second half of the race. After what seemed like hours on a natural stair-stepper, the trail leveled out and transitioned to sweet single track.

As a solid, middle-of-the-pack runner, one of the aspects of the sport I enjoy most is the opportunity to meet new people and share conversation. As I settled in around mile 5, I met Andrew, a 21-year-old who was attempting his first distance beyond 16 miles. We worked our way over the rolling hills of the Rockwood Range together, talking shoes, nutrition and the beauty of the changing trees. Our conversation was interrupted by the sounds of screams and the rumble of rollercoaster cars as we ran around the rear end of Six Flags St. Louis. The commotion of the theme park faded behind us we closed in on the turnaround.

As the race left the Green Rock Trail and switched onto a section of fire road, I began to feel the negative impact of my choice to run up many of the early hills. Andrew and I separated as he continued to run strong and I began to fade. A series of three long, undulating hills zapped my legs, and I struggled to manage this unfamiliar portion of the course. I dug in and worked on just grinding it out as male leaders Eric Floro and Jack Wilkinson made their way back toward and past me from the halfway turnaround. They would finish in first and second place with 5:41:46 and 6:11:02 times, respectively.

I reached the halfway point myself and began to refuel at the aid station. My spirits were lifted as I saw Andrew there with his parents. They offered him encouragement and beamed with pride. We both headed out with a renewed spring in our step. Women’s winner Julia Moffitt came streaking by from behind us, looking amazingly strong and fresh. She went on to finish fourth overall with an impressive time of 6:19:27.

Several more runners overtook me as I attempted to find a sustainable pace for the return trip but ended up walking more than I would have liked. Though I didn’t complete the race the way I had envisioned, I did spend a beautiful fall day in the woods with a young runner completing his first ultra — not to mention the free beer and wood-fired pizza at the after-party. I hope next year’s Rockin’ Rockwoods brings out more young runners and gives me a chance to apply the lessons I learned this year.

And to the race director, I say: “Good job. That was one heck of a ride.”

Author: Tim Storck
Photo: Rick Mayo / Mile 90 Photography