Having nothing better to do last Tuesday morning, I decided to complete the Soulstice Mountain Trail Run.
This would be my first long course. I ran the old short course in 2018 (aka “The Year of the Yellowjackets”) and ran/walked the new short course in 2019. The devil that made me sign up for the long course this year whispered in my ear, “You’ve spent a summer of enforced non-travel getting into good condition. Why not put it to the test?”
The answer seemed so obvious the night I registered. It was much less obvious as I stared down a vertical pitch along the misnamed “Seven Sisters” (Seven Demons is more like it), thinking, “Do people really run this?”
The biggest challenge wasn’t that rock-strewn roller-coaster, though; it was just staying on the course. When race director Neil Weintraub re-routed Soulstice in 2019, he invited people out for a test run before race day. They later reported that way-finding was challenging even with a map.
“Good thing we’re setting out course markers,” Neil reassured last year’s runners.
I of course had no such markers to follow. I printed some (intentionally?) vague directions from the NATRA LLC website, saved a photo of the course map to my phone and eventually accessed a Forest Service map app that (as it turned out) showed different road numbers from NATRA’s directions.
I still thought I was well prepared, even after I ran into Holly and Annette at the Sunset Trailhead. They were heading out to do the short course. When I told them my plans, Annette, a long course veteran, looked deeply concerned.
“Don’t worry, I expect to get lost,” I reassured her. “It will be part of the fun.”
Possibly cursed by my own bravado, get lost I did. A wrong turn up Forest Road 6273 cost me four-tenths of a mile. Then there was the hunt for “Dog Food Trail.” It’s named on NATRA’s directions but not visible on my (or perhaps any?) map. Around the expected spot, I glimpsed flags leading off to the right and thought, “Sweet! Neil marked this turn!” At that cheerful moment, my foot caught a rock and I was down.
I fell on Soulstice last year, too; that scar is on my left knee. I got off easy this time. Dig the shrapnel out of my palms, rinse and off I go.
I only turned the wrong way twice more after that, completing my version of the Soulstice long course in 2:35. What I remember now is not the confusion of trails but the undeniable beauty of an autumn morning and the pride when I reached the traditional finish line — having run only six-tenths of a mile farther than the actual course to get there.
I look forward to the day we can once again run Soulstice with all the volunteers, Sasquatches and other runners whose good cheer I missed this year ... and all the course markers I so obviously need.
Julie Hammonds is the coordinating editor of High Country Running. She welcomes your columns, tips and story ideas via email at email@example.com.
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