2018 Cedar City Thunderbird 25K/50K: Race Report and Trail Review

I ran the inaugural Cedar City Thunderbird trail race today. Since I have been meaning to write a review of the Thunderbird Gardens trails for a while now, I figured this would be a good excuse to finally do it. This post focuses on the trails included in the 25K course, because that is what I ran today, and includes pictures I have taken on these trails in recent months and years. (A future post will review the Southview trails, which were on the 50K course. I don’t have good pictures of those trails in my archive, or else I might have included them in today’s post.)

The 25K course may be divided into the following sections, (with approximate mile markers in parentheses):

  • Rainbow Hills (0-2.5)
  • Thunderbird Gardens (3-8):
    • Lightning Switch (3-5)
    • Ghost Flats (5-6.5)
    • Thor’s Hideout (6.5-7.5)
    • Red Hollow (7.5-8)
  • Cedar Canyon and East Bench trails (8-10.5)
  • “C” Trail (10.5-15)
  • East Bench Trail return (15-16.5)

Here is the course map for the 25K race:

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Image taken from the race website: https://www.cedarcitythunderbird50k.com/. The 50K race is identical until the 25K turnaround point, where the 50K runners continue to the top of the “C” Trail and then do a big lollipop detour through the Southview trail system.

Rainbow Hills

The course starts at the Rainbow Hills, which are on the northeast side of town at the foot of the Red Hill. These hills are strikingly pigmented in alternating red and white stripes, and the trail through them offers many interesting perspectives on the scenery, including panoramic vistas from on top of a high ridge and a luge run through a narrow winding canyon. Near the bottom of the canyon section there is a large exposed rock surface with fossilized water ripples from a prehistoric lake bed.

I started the race well, and a little faster than normal because I wanted to get through the bottleneck in Rainbow Hills before it got too crowded. But within the first couple of miles I could feel that this was not going to be a good running day for me. I got out of breath much faster than I expected and had to slow my pace.

Thunderbird Gardens

The trail through Rainbow Hills comes out on the dirt road which leads to the parking lot at Thunderbird Gardens, where there is only a single outhouse and no running water. A couple of my favorite running trails start from this parking lot:

Lightning Switch

The trails start at the east end of the parking lot, and the Lightning Switch trail branches off of the main trail about a quarter mile from the trail head. It ascends rapidly up the hillside using frequent switchbacks, as its name implies. The trail is runnable, but you can go anaerobic if you take it too fast. The higher parts of the trail provide some nice views of the valley and of the hills to the south, which you will run through on the Thor’s Hideout trail in a few minutes.

If you pay attention to the trees along this trail you will see an occasional bristlecone pine, which are some of the oldest living things in the world. I’m not sure how old the ones are along this trail, but a grove near Cedar Breaks called the Twisted Forest (5-6 miles away as the crow flies) is thought to be about 4,000 years old. (And there is a short but runnable trail through the Twisted Forest that ends with a panoramic view of Cedar Breaks.)

By the time I got to Lightning Switch I knew that my race was in trouble. I couldn’t run up the switchbacks, and when I got above them I started to feel nauseated and almost threw up on the trail when I tried to run again. A few minutes later a runner came up from behind and asked to interview me for his video race report. (I will post a link when he uploads the video.) He was a nice fellow from South Africa named Martin (here is his YouTube channel), and we stayed together until we got to the top of Lightning Switch, running on the gentler parts of the climb and hiking the steep parts.

Ghost Flats

You will immediately notice that the Ghost Flats trail is very different from Lightning Switch. It is an old ATV trail, so it is rough, rocky, and very steep in places. For this reason it is my least favorite running trail at Thunderbird Gardens, but running down it is not too bad. As you reach the bottom of the trail you will run along the top of a ridge with a nice view. To your right you can see the switchbacks from the lower part of Lightning Switch, and to your left you will see the valley where the Thor’s Hideout trail goes.

The race course doesn’t go to Ghost Flats, which is a small meadow on the east side of the mountain about a third of a mile up the trail from the junction with Lightning Switch. You can see it in the top right corner of the map above. The trail keeps going eastward into the mountains from the meadow, but gets even steeper and is not really runnable. Also it goes on to private property.

Another branch of the Ghost Flats trail which you won’t see on race day is a turnoff less than 100 feet up the trail from Lightning Switch. This trail heads off toward the south to Salt Creek Canyon and ends up at Highway 14 in Cedar Canyon 2 miles later. It is a rough and steep downhill. I have never tried to climb up this way, but as a downhill trail it is fun. If you follow the highway down the canyon you can return to Thunderbird Gardens either via Red Hollow/Thor’s Hideout or through Rainbow Hills.

At the top of Ghost Flats I was feeling a bit better, so I pulled ahead from my new South African friend for a few minutes, but I could not sustain the pace and he caught up to me again as we merged on to the Thor’s Hideout Trail.

Thor’s Hideout

Thor’s Hideout is one of my favorite running trails in Cedar City. The trail is nicely graded and includes very helpful switchbacks and a nice wooden foot bridge. There is also an old ATV trail running parallel to the hiking trail, it is rough, rocky, and steep. I have run down it, but I don’t think it would be pleasant to run up.

Thor’s Hideout meets the Red Hollow Trail at the highest point in the valley behind the Red Hill. There is a little side trail (not on the race course) called Thor’s Lookout which goes southeast from this junction, up the hillside and past a few switchbacks, only to terminate abruptly at a small chair made out of sandstone slabs about a quarter mile up the trail.

Martin pulled ahead as we started our climb up to the saddle, and I started to really slow down, never to regain my speed for the rest of the race.

Red Hollow

The Red Hollow trail is a swift but smooth downhill over beautiful red dirt and sandstone. The trail is short – less than a mile – but the scenery is gorgeous, and the views are generally better when going in the downhill direction. This makes it hard to keep your eyes on the trail, which you really need to do to keep your feet under you, but you can probably afford to steal a few glances up to take in the view now and then. This trail is also runnable in the uphill direction, but is a relentless climb the whole way.

I was very disappointed to find that I couldn’t run the downhill with any kind of speed due to cramps that were developing in my hips. From this point on I was passed by other runners every few minutes, and never passed another runner who didn’t overtake me again before the end of the race.

At the bottom of the trail there was an aid station near Highway 14 in Cedar Canyon, with water, bananas, Honey Stinger gels, and electrolyte additives for your water. This was the only full-service aid station on the 25K course. This was about the halfway point of the race, and I was already limping.

After leaving the aid station I crossed the highway and the foot bridge onto the Cedar Canyon Trial. It might be nice to have a crossing guard at the highway next year. I won’t say much about the Cedar Canyon and East Bench trails in this write-up, except to lament the fact that a trail race has to cover so much distance on pavement. But there is not a good unpaved trail connecting Red Hollow to the C Trail, so we’ll have to make do with pavement for a few miles. I won’t complain too much about it, because the pavement is nice and smooth, and on a good running day I could have made good time on these sections.

“C” Trail

Compared to some other letters on mountains in Utah ours is admittedly sort of wimpy-looking, but the trail to our letter is second to none. Be prepared for a serious, unrelenting climb on the “C” Trail. From the top you can see down to the Rainbow Hills and the Red Hill, and it is obvious from this height that the “C” Trail dwarfs all other climbs on this course.

I have run the whole “C” Trail as a cardio hill workout, but on race day I hiked almost the whole way up. The 25K course only went halfway up the trail and then turned around at the junction with the Highlands trail. My favorite parts of the “C” Trail are in the upper half, but I didn’t mind missing them because by the time I reached the turnaround I was hurting. (The pictures below are all from the upper half of the trail.)

My descent down the trail was slow, and at some points I couldn’t run because the cramps were getting worse and moving down into my right quads. Faster runners were passing me every few minutes, although there were still plenty of people still climbing the trail. Two-way traffic on the trail was not a problem, as the trail is fairly wide in most places and because the race had a fairly small number of runners.

At mile 15 my watch battery died. It’s an old Garmin Forerunner 10 that I bought in 2013, and I guess it is time to replace it because it won’t record a run longer than about 3.5 hours. Also, I accidentally left my phone at home so I couldn’t map the run that way. I ran out of water near the bottom of the “C” Trail, and refilled it at the water-only station on the East Bench trail. In the last half mile before the finish line I found that my cramps eased up a bit so I could run a little faster. Glancing at my watch, which had enough juice to tell the time but not enough to track GPS, I saw that I might be able to finish before 4 hours. But despite giving it a good effort I crossed the finish line just after 4 hours, within the next minute.

Conclusion

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The Thunderbird 25K/50K was a great trail race, and one that I hope to run again. Hopefully next year I will feel better on race day and get a better finish. The aid stations were good, the swag was not bad, the weather was absolutely perfect, and the trails were beautiful. Congratulations and a big thanks to the race organizers.

Also, I have to put in a good plug for Mike’s Running, Cedar City’s only full-service running store, and one of the main race sponsors. Mike is a pretty awesome guy, and does an expert job of finding the right shoe for your foot. The day before the race I bought a new bottle belt at Mike’s Running to replace my trusty old threadbare one, which is 6 years old and has a bad habit of letting go of my bottle on quick downhills. I probably would have lost my bottle today if it hadn’t been for my new belt (well, maybe not because I couldn’t run very fast today).

Cedar City is home to some fantastic trail running, and the Thunderbird 25K/50K gives you a good survey of what we have to offer. I am really happy that we have a trail race here in town, and I was honored to run in its inaugural year!

Update: Here is Martin’s race video: https://youtu.be/hsWAy7KJenw


I also blog about religion and medicine and about my music recording hobby.

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