Being Home and at Peace at Watoga State Park

In many ways, the area feels like a second home to me. When I drive into the park and see those trees arch over the road, I exhale and sigh the sigh of being at home and at peace. My experience at the park is rich in years. Anything I can do to make sure that generations who come after me have that same experience, I am ready to lace up my shoes or drive my car as the case may be. I think the main reason I made the drive was and is support for the mission of the Watoga State Park Foundation, and a deep love and respect for the area.

The trip to Watoga was certainly a longish drive. When I mapped it out, it said if I took all interstates it would be about 13.5 or 14 hours with no stops, but I decided to make a longer trip of it and take all blue roads (U.S. highways and state highways).

This extended things to about 20 hours of driving time and about 980 miles each way. I made this a part of my vacation and took two days to make the drive. I am a person who has always liked to drive and take the “scenic route.”

The Challenging Part of the Mountain Trail Challenge

Usually, I always joke with people that one needs to emphasize the “Mountain Trail” and “Challenge” part of the race. It is definitely a very challenging course, and there is a deep feeling of satisfaction to completing the course no matter where you are in the pack. I firmly believe the only way you could actually train for this run is by training full-time on this course. It is always a feeling of accomplishment to complete a half marathon or long-distance run, but I think there is an even greater sense of satisfaction when the course is so challenging.

Pastor John Sowers, No. 3737 of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at "home and at peace" at Watoga's 2021 Mountain Trail Challenge Half-Marathon Race. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Pastor John Sowers, No. 3737, at “home and at peace” at Watoga’s 2021 Mountain Trail Challenge Half-Marathon Race. Photo by Brian Hirt.

This actually is my third time doing the race. I ran in 2016, 2017, and now 2021. I should note that before I left the park, I reserved my cabin for 2022.

A funny story: I have always been a bit of a runner, so I was pretty cocky in 2016. Guess what? I got my clock cleaned by the course and was very near the back of the pack in 2016. After that, I pledged that would not happen in 2017, and in 2017 I placed 6th overall. I was a little nervous about being away for four years, but I was only a minute slower this year and placed 7th overall so I figured it wasn’t too bad for four years older.

Forty-Plus Years at Watoga

I checked with my Dad to figure out when we started coming to the park. Our first trip was in the autumn of 1980 for the school system’s fall break. My oldest brother would have been 10, my next brother would have been 8, I would have been two months shy of 4, and my youngest brother was 3 months old.

My parents enjoyed it so much they decided we start doing our one-week Spring Breaks there. Dad believes our first Spring Break was 1982, and with rare exception we went every year. I graduated from high school in 1995, and I spent nearly every spring break there.

When we first started going to the park, it was not open year-round. There were even a couple or three years when our Spring Break was technically before the park opened. In those years, the superintendent gave us special permission to rent a cabin and be in the park. We had the whole park to ourselves! And we would always rent cabin 28 in Pine Run. We are all long since grown, but my parents still go every Spring and rent cabin 28. In fact, when I checked in at the park, the person checking me in asked if I was related to that couple that comes during the Spring every year! I smiled and said, “Those are my parents.”

As I mentioned, I do try to stay connected to the area with a mail subscription to the Pocahontas Times. My parents also have a mail subscription.

Inspired to Run and More . . .

Running is an important part of my spirituality and faith life. In my work a day life, I am the pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I have been serving in Leavenworth for three years as of May 1. As of June 30, I have been ordained 19 years.

Running allows me to fulfill my vocation more fully. In pastoral ministry, it is common to work 60 to 70 hours a week, odd hours, and functionally be on call 24/7. It is the running and attention to my diet that allows me the energy to live the life of a vocational pastor. Also, when a person gets in fairly good shape, you don’t have to really think about moving your arms and legs in concert to run, but the body just takes care of itself. That means in the midst of one’s run, there is time to think, pray, wonder, and ponder during the space of a training run. (Many sermons have been considered and many prayers have been lifted during my runs).

It would be fair to say that I come from a running family. In my childhood, there were times when all six of us of would run races. We tended to be an active and athletic family. Watoga is and was good for us. We would hike almost every day of our one-week stay. There were even some days that were long enough that lunches were packed for the hikes. One day of the week was always spent in Lewisburg though!

A Watoga Spring Break Like None Other

One of the things I vividly remember about our trips is that we would bring lots of books and board games for the evenings. After our week at “the cabin,” as we called it, we could come back home. We would be rested, refreshed, and closer as a family. Many of my classmates would come back to school more tired after Spring Break than when they had left. I felt like we always did things the right way.

Mountain Trail Challenge Race Photos at Watoga State Park

Even though the weather was not perfect for the 6th Annual Watoga State Park Mountain Trail Challenge Races, runners young and old alike turned out to take on the “challenge” of the 5K Run/Walk and Half-Marathon.

Photos of Watoga State Park Mountain Trail Challenge Races
Most importantly, they’re off at Watoga’s Sixth Annual Mountain Trail Challenge Races. Photo by Daniel Flores.
Runners gather steam for Watoga's Mountain Trail Challenge.
Meanwhile, determination appears on the faces of half-marathoners at Watoga State Park. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Mountain Trail Challenge
Now, through the woods of the Mountain Trail Challenge we go. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Mountain Trail Challenge Runners go by lush ferns along the course.
Furthermore, along the trails at Watoga State Park is a plethora of flora and fauna for runners and hikers alike. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Without doubt, the moss and ferns welcomed the much-needed rain. However, we’re not so sure about the runners. Photo by Brian Hirt.

And the Mountain Trail Challenge
Continues . . .

During the races, fist-bumps are often seen between volunteers and runners. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Despite the weather, the smiles came out in full force. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Near the picnic shelter at Watoga State Park, this runner sprints toward an aid station.
Evidently, the refreshments and nutrition will be very useful in a second. Photo by Daniel Flores.
In spite of thunder, lightning, and torrential rain, this runner weathered the storm. Photo by Peggy Owens.
Certainly, there are many thumbs up to all the runners who show up year-after-year for the Mountain Trail Challenge races. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Strategically placed aid stations help runners to endure the “challenging” race. Photo by Daniel Flores.
Aha, the finish line at last! Photo by Peggy Owens.
Obviously, we took your photo. How did the one of us turn out? Photo by Peggy Owens.
Watoga State Park welcomes this young lady to the races!
No words needed. Photo by Daniel Flores.
Weather aside, warm and friendly smiles ruled the day. Photo by Daniel Flores.

Until Next Year . . .

Watoga State Park Foundation canopy.
Two Foundation board members await confirmation that all runners have safely traversed the courses. And planning is already underway for next year’s Mountain Trail Challenge races. Photo by Peggy Owens.

5K and Half Marathon Stage Almost Set to Welcome Runners to Watoga

5K and Half-Marathon signs going up at Watoga.

The stage is almost set for the Sixth Annual Watoga State Park Mountain Challenge Races. Saturday’s races will feature runners from Virginia to California and across the United States. Because of Watoga’s unique racecourses, 5K and Half Marathon enthusiasts come from across the U.S.

Race Day morning temperature will be a comfortable 63 degrees. Talk about ideal running conditions! Meteorologists currently predict afternoon temperatures of 84 degrees. There’s a 39 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms in nearby Hillsboro. However, at Watoga, it should be five to 10 degrees cooler along this challenging and hilly route.

As you drive into the park, race signs, strategically placed to “get your attention,” will direct you to the Beaver Creek Campground. You also may notice deer out grazing so early in a mist-filled morning.

From 6:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., Race Day entrants can complete the registration process near the Beaver Creek Campground. Whether you’ve registered online or are waiting until that morning, don’t worry. Our volunteer teams will assist you.

All race proceeds benefit Watoga State Park. Any donations may be tax-deductible.

Because of the unavailability of Internet services, only cash or checks are accepted. Moreover, if you have never been to Watoga, please print your directions or save them to your mobile device prior to leaving. You will not have internet-based map directions for the entire trip to the park.

Along the 5K and Half Marathon Courses . . .

Along the half marathon route, runners will traverse through a 13.1-mile adventure. Elevations will range from 2,560 feet to 3,200 feet. Six aid stations staffed by volunteers providing nutrition and essential hydration to runners. The 5K will have one aid station situation mid-way in the 3.1-mile course.

Serious looks are on the faces of the half marathon runners as they are ready to take on a challenging 13.1-mile course at Watoga State Park's Half Marathon and 5k Races. Photo by the Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc.
Half Marathon runners are ready to take on Watoga’s challenging 13.1-mile course. Photo by the Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc.

This year’s tread (the surface runners feel underfoot) is in the best shape ever! Importantly, continuous and necessary work during the past six years has resulted in steady improvements to prevent erosion and tread wear.

Communications teams, rescue personnel, and emergency response squads will be in various locations throughout the park.

Photographers will be documenting your journey, your smiles, and even a grimace or two as you leave sweat behind.

The half marathon starts promptly at 8:30, followed by the 5K with both slated to end at 2 p.m. A cookout and an awards ceremony will be at the Beaver Creek Campground airstrip.

Race organizers, event planners, volunteers, and park personnel will be following protocol recommended by the Centers for Disease Control as well as local and state health guidelines. You can review current guidelines issued by the CDC. Additional COVID information will be provided in the pre-race meeting.

Watoga State Park and the Foundation are looking forward to welcoming you to the Watoga Mountain Trail Races. See you Saturday!

Online Registration for 5K and Half-Marathon Races Ends Soon!

Attention All Runners: Online registration for the Mountain Trail Challenge 5K and Half-Marathon Races ends in two days! Please click here to complete your sign up before 11:59 p.m., Saturday, August 7. After August 7, you can still register in-person on Race Day, August 14. Just follow the signs to the airfield near the Beaver Creek Campground.

Are you ready to run? Online registration deadline is fast approaching. Sign up today!
Are you ready to run? The online registration deadline for the 5K and Half-Marathon races is fast approaching. Sign up today!

As the largest state park in West Virginia at 10,000-plus acres and more than 40-miles of trails, Watoga State Park is the ideal spot for a late summer half-marathon and 5K. In the half-marathon, runners will traverse through some of the most majestic surroundings in the eastern U.S. Additionally, temperatures in mid-August tend to run on the hot side. Moreover, Watoga runners will be surrounded by a canopy of trees and greens on its half-marathon and 5K courses.

5K and Half-Marathon Specifics

Half-Marathon and 5K Races: August 14, Watoga State Park, 4800 Watoga Road, Marlinton, WV 24954. Follow the signs for Beaver Creek Campground. First up is the Half- Marathon. It begins promptly at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m. Furthermore, the 5K starts at 8:40 a.m., ending at 2 p.m.

View the Mountain Trail Challenge Half-Marathon course map. Here’s the route for the 5K.

Great Places to Stay and Eat!

You can explore lodging options at the park and other places to stay or dine.

Please note that for Race Day registrants, due to the unavailability of Internet services, only cash or checks can be accepted. Also, if you have never been to Watoga, please print your directions or save them to your mobile device prior to leaving home. You will not have internet-based map directions for the entire trip to the park.

See you on Race Day at Watoga, where its many wonders await you on shaded and wooded mountain trails!

Mountain Trail Challenge Races: Unique Courses for Runners at Watoga

Mountain Trail Challenge Races kick off on August 14 at Watoga State Park.
Mountain Trail Challenge Races kick off on August 14 at Watoga State Park. Photo by Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc.

In less than two weeks, many people will meet at an old air strip in a remote region of the Allegheny Highlands in West Virginia. Throughout 2021, visitors came to Watoga State Park from near and far for various reasons. Some came to camp, hike, bike, fish or maybe stay in a cabin built in the 1930s. But, this is a group of runners gathering to do what they love: Run on the trails! And run they will at the Sixth Annual Watoga State Park Mountain Trail Challenge Races. Featured events are the half-marathon and the 5K on August 14.

Mountain Trail Challenge Races at West Virginia’s Largest State Park

As the largest state park in West Virginia at 10,000-plus acres and more than 40-miles of trails, Watoga is the ideal spot for a late summer half-marathon and 5K. In the half-marathon, runners will traverse through some of the most majestic surroundings in the eastern U.S. Additionally, temperatures in mid-August tend to run on the hot side. Watoga runners will be surrounded by a canopy of trees and greens on its half-marathon and 5K courses.

While marathoners and 5K runners alike have been conditioning for Watoga’s challenging trails, volunteers from the Watoga State Park Foundation have been busy getting both courses into game-day ready shape.

So, are you ready to race? Here are a few last-minute details. Online registration ends August 7 at 11:59 p.m. After August 7, registration is in person only, on Race Day, August 14 at 6:30 a.m. at the Beaver Creek Campground Check-in Station. Here is the registration site for both races.

All race proceeds benefit the park through the Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. Your donations may be tax deductible.

Race Details

Half-Marathon and 5K Races: August 14, Watoga State Park, 4800 Watoga Road, Marlinton, WV 24954. Follow the signs for Beaver Creek Campground. First up is the Half- Marathon. It begins promptly at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m. The 5K starts at 8:40 a.m., ending at 2 p.m.

View the Mountain Trail Challenge Half-Marathon course map. Here’s the route for the 5K.

You can explore lodging options at the park and other places to stay or dine.

Course Updates and What Our Volunteers Are Doing

Word has it that the course surface is in excellent condition thanks to many volunteers who have been diligently removing encroaching plants and roots since 2020.

Behind the scenes at Watoga and on race day, more than 60 volunteers are working diligently to make the Mountain Trail Challenge Races the best ever. They have been busy marking the courses, using signs and flagging ribbons as well as mile point markers.

Moreover, on race day, others will be assisting with food, snacks and refreshments for the runners. You may even notice our volunteer communications team throughout the park, strategically located to ensure runners’ safety. So, look for our volunteers along the trails and other unexpected places cheering you on, staffing first-aid stations, and providing much-needed hydration. If you are able to volunteer to help the Foundation assist Watoga to become even greater than it is now, please complete this online form.

Don’t be surprised if you see a photographer or two along your route capturing your smiles and grimaces along the way. That Mountain Trail Challenge Races t-shirt you run so hard to receive is also ordered!

Many runners faces are depicted in this collage from Watoga State Park's Mountain Trail Challenge Races set to start on August 14.
Will you be one of these faces this year? Photo by Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc.