Thunder Rock 100 trail race 'an instant classic'

Thunder Rock 100 trail race 'an instant classic'

May 22nd, 2014 by Ron Bush in Sports - Outdoors

Thunder Rock 100 participants cross the Hiwassee River with the help of a rope at mile 83.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

For a first-time event of such magnitude, the Thunder Rock 100 trail race last weekend went remarkably well, even with unusual weather. But then it takes unusual people to take on such a challenge.

First-time 100-miler Ryan Smith just didn't allow for any victory drama in the newest race of the Salomon Rock/Creek Trail Series.

The 34-year-old Boulder, Colo., resident and Scotland native has run a 2-hour-35-minute marathon and finished plenty of ultra-marathons, but he never had done a 100-mile race before. Rock/Creek racing team member Nick Lewis of Memphis was expecting him to fade late in the course that began Friday at noon at the Ocoee Whitewater Center and ended Saturday at Parksville Lake, with considerable elevation changes and amazing Cherokee National Forest scenery along the way.

There was even a fog-shrouded, above-waist crossing of the cold Hiwassee River.

But the fade never happened. Smith actually ran about 105 miles -- thanks to a trail-marking problem at mile 90 that was fixed for those behind him -- in 17 hours, 47 minutes, 55 seconds. Lewis, 28, was second in 19:02:50, 26 minutes ahead of third-place Brian Pickett from Kingsport.

There were 132 finishers out of the 172 who started the race. Registration was cut off at 200 and was full in two days after being opened on Jan. 15.

Two Chattanoogans, 36-year-old Daniel Lucas and 39-year-old Eric Loffland, finished eighth and 10th in 20:20:56 and 20:33:33. Riva Johnson of Carlisle, Pa., was the first female and 23rd overall in 21:36:05. She's 51.

"From the word 'go' Ryan and Eric were gone, and I mean gone," Lewis wrote in a blog posted at www.rockcreek.com. "Having had to death march in from going out too hard on more than one occasion, I focused on staying in hybrid mode: eating/drinking and expending as little energy as possible. I would be the one passing the carnage, not being the carnage."

He gradually moved up from low in the top 10 to fifth and then to third, and after mile 54 he had only Smith to catch, and that wasn't going to happen.

"A big congrats to Ryan. He ran very confidently and gutsy all day long," Lewis wrote in his blog.

Earlier, he noted that the inaugural Thunder Rock "delivered what you would expect of a late-spring/early-summer race in the Southeast: crazy weather. The forecast didn't come to pegging what was to come: It rained, hailed (twice), rained more, got sunny, rained again and finally stayed sunny/clear."

Race director Randy Whorton acknowledged that the cool night air led to two competitors withdrawing because of hypothermia, but overall the race went smoothly. He and his Wild Trails and Rock/Creek Outfitters associates have conducted many trail races before, but Whorton admitted he expected snafus of some kind that did not materialize.

"I think it went awesome, and Ryan Smith was amazing," Whorton said. "Not only are we committed to continuing this race, but I think it may have been an instant classic. I was prepared for bad things to happen, but we were lucky. For one thing, every 100-mile race I've ever been part of has had at least one or two ambulance trips -- I heard at least five ambulances in one race -- but we didn't have any."

Smith, who lived in New York City for five years before moving to Boulder a couple of years ago, said he decided on Thunder Rock being his first 100 from a promotional video he saw last year.

"They did a good job of selling the location and the course," he said Wednesday. "I'm always attracted to nice courses and beautiful terrain, and I had not run in Tennessee before."

He said he definitely would recommend the race to friends.

"The course was stunning, actually. And I think the weather and the thunderstorms added to the majesty of the area," he said, noting that the 40 miles or so he ran in the daylight Friday were "just fantastic" although he had some knee soreness during that singletrack, technical portion.

Running by himself did get lonely, he admitted, but probably had little impact on how fast he ran.

Expect the 2015 Thunder Rock 100 to sell out fast again -- maybe even as fast as Ryan Smith ran the first one.

Contact Ron Bush at rbush@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6291.