11 Things to Love About the Cook Forest 25K Trail Challenge

If you want to get an up close look at Cook Forest in northwest Pennsylvania, stepping up to the starting line of the Cook Forest 25K Trail Challenge is the best way to do it.

Why? In this race, runners...

  • Travel through 8,500 acres of Cook Forest State Park on 16 miles of trails
  • Run along the Clarion River
  • Pass some of the tallest evergreens in the Keystone State
  • Make the climb up to a retired lookout tower
  • And of course, enjoy the journey with runners, family and friends

But there's even more to like about this race, says Brynn Cunningham, who's stepped up to the starting line of the Cook Forest 25K Trail Challenge more than once...

Here's 11 things to love about this race...

The Cook Forest 25k is known for its old growth areas, which include hemlocks and white pines, many of which exceed three feet in diameter with the tallest approaching 200 feet. (Photo/ David Moore)

1. The trees

In 2021, the allure of the Cook Forest 25k came down to the trees.

For every race I run, I like to familiarize myself with the flora, fauna and local history. So, in 2021, I read all I could about Cook Forest. 

Here’s one thing I found… 

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Cook Forest State Park brochure:

  • Old-growth trees. Cook Forest has eleven old growth areas, totaling more than 2,300 acres. 
  • Species. Most stands are dominated by ancient hemlock and white pine, but also contain ancient understory trees like white and chestnut oak, black cherry, red maple and cucumber trees.
  • Age. Many white pine and hemlock trees are approaching 350 years old.
  • Origin. Scientists believe the old growth areas began growing following a large forest fire in 1644.
  • Survival. Some trees survived the fire and date back to the early 1500s.
  • National treasure. The Forest Cathedral Natural Area is home to the finest stand of tall white pine and hemlock in the Northeastern U.S. (the race runs through it!)
  • Big & tall. Many of the pine and hemlock trees exceed three feet in diameter with the tallest approaching 200 feet.
  • The Forest Cathedral is a National Natural Landmark and has been set aside for protection as a state park natural area.

This was all the information I needed to log into ultrasignup.com and sign up for the 2021 race.

And then again in 2022.

Author passing by the mile 15 aid station, with two miles to go. Most of the trails in the Cook Forest 25k look like this - smooth and fast. (Photo/Eric Harder)

2. The trails

With so many evergreens, you may have already inferred the following: 

  • The trails making up the race route consist of soft, friendly beds of fallen pine needles, interspersed with smooth dirt roads.
One of the smooth dirt roads of the Cook Forest 25k course. (Photo/Eric Harder)

In other words, the Cook Forest 25k does not do justice to Pennsylvania’s nickname, “Rocksylvania.” 

Where I come from (Ohiopyle State Park), technical, rocky, rooty, trails make up the majority of my local routes. 

  • The Cook Forest 25k had only one memorable, technical section that stands out in my mind.

This may seem ideal, yes? 

  • On one hand, I loved the gentle terrain.
  • On the other hand, it made it difficult, because I was not mentally prepared to run that pace on that day. 

As a result, here’s what happened: 

  • I packed solid fuel conducive to running an 11 to 12-minute-mile average pace but ran a 10:27 per mile average pace instead, which I have not done on any run similar to that distance this year.
  • The terrain of the first six miles was so smooth (which does not mean flat, it was plenty hilly) that I was running eight, nine and 10-minute miles, not something I’ve been practicing recently. 
The Cook Forest 25k has 3,600 feet of climbing.
  • Finally, we hit a decent climb around mile seven, which forced me to slow down and catch my breath.
  • I was having a difficult time eating sweet potatoes and chocolate and wished I had packed nothing but liquid hydration for fuel. 
  • My stomach began to feel queasy around mile 15.
  • Keep reading (or skip to number 10) to see what happened next…

3. The distance (it's more than 25 kilometers)

The 2022 race course was nearly exactly the same, except that the start/finish area was moved, making it an even 17 miles, which the race description clearly explains.

Before 2022, it was closer to 16.5 miles.

If you want a little more than the exact 25k (15.5 miles), look no farther than Cook Forest.

Author (far left) with family at Cook Forest’s Ridge Campground.

4. Camping: It’s a one-mile hike or trail run to the start line.

WeeViews founder David Moore and I camped with our families next to a trail that took us directly to the start line. 

It was a one-mile run, mostly downhill, an ideal warmup and situation for our significant others, who were spared driving to the start line with four kids. 

Even more, a friend who also ran the race camped in a different section of the same campground and took another trail of the same distance to the start line.

5. It's starts at 9 a.m.

Not too early, not too late, 9 a.m. = a sweet spot, especially after driving three hours and camping the night before.

6. The swag

The T-shirts:

  • Are bright (2021 was neon orange, 2021 neon green)
  • Are available in youth medium for those needing extra small
  • Have a map of the course on the front - genius! 

And the finisher’s medal?

  • No medal, just a hat - also genius 
Cook Forest Fire Tower (Photo/ David Moore)

7. The tower

The Cook Forest Fire Tower is a nearly 90-foot watch tower built in 1929. 

  • Though it is no longer used for its original purpose, it is open to the public...
  • Including racers, to climb to the top for a view of the Clarion River valley. 

In the 2021 race, we ran by the tower in the first couple of miles.
 
In 2022, with the start/finish area change, we ran by it around mile 13 or 14.

David Moore (far right with dog) and author (center in green hat) visiting the Cook Forest Fire Tower after the 2022 race with their families and friends. (Photo/ June Graham)

No, I did not run up the tower during the race, but we climbed up afterward with family and friends. 

In 2021, author (front) kayaked the Clarion River along with her family the day after the race, when the river rose four feet, hence the brown water. In 2022, the water was too low, but it provided for some nice scenery.

8. The river

Running beside bodies of water is always a delight, isn’t it? Cook Forest racers run along the National Wild & Scenic Clarion River around mile 10.

For those making a weekend of it, canoe rentals, fishing and swimming abound.

June Graham, bib 199, and Amanda Love, bib 267, ran the Cook Forest 25k. They are part of the Ohiopyle-based Trail Run Tribe with author Brynn Cunningham (bib 164). (Photo/ David Moore)

9. The women

Road tripping to run a trail race is always fun.

Road tripping to run a trail race with friends? Even better.

What’s more, I met some awesome women and ran alongside them during the race, rotating who was second, third, fourth female, which kept changing until the last mile or so of the race. 

It was empowering. We:

  • Pumped each other up with encouraging words like “Get it, girl!!!”
  • Cheered as we passed each other, some of us countless times, back and forth 
  • Chatted about our kids and trails 
  • Uplifted each other with our desire to give it our all and run our best, in the hopes that the positive energy would rub off and keep those running in front, beside and behind us upbeat and running strong, too, with heads and hearts high. 

🏃‍♀️👊Here’s to my Trail Run Tribe and all the women I met and ran with in 2021 and 2022 along the course. 

Keep running and lifting each other up!

Author running toward the finish to cinch third overall female. (Photo/ Eric Harder)

10. If you 🤮VOMIT🤮 at the finish line, the race director will be the first to hold you up.

Remember in number two when I talked about how the smooth, non-technical terrain had me running faster than I had anticipated, and the fuel I packed just didn’t jive with that pace? 

🏃‍♀️🤮With two miles to go, the nausea crept in.

I willed it away.

By the last mile, I was surging to a six-and-seven-minute pace, for mere seconds, just enough, eager to reach the end.

The last stretch toward the finish line was a parking lot straightaway, which took me back to my sprinter days. 

I sped up as if I were sprinting the 100-meter dash, the first race I fell in love with back as an 11-year-old.

Cunningham crossed the finish line in 2:52:17. (Photo/Eric Harder)

After I crossed the finish, I came to an abrupt stop.

🤮That’s when everything came up…

  • As I vomited more liquid than I thought could possibly come out of a human, the kind, enthusiastic race director held me upright while cheering and ensuring that I was OK. 
  • He was right - I was OK, which I knew, because it wasn’t my first time vomiting at a finish line.
  • In fact, a man who finished just before I did approached me and said something like, “I was at the 2020 Laurel Highlands 50k and saw you do the same thing around the parking lot lap!” 

We laughed and laughed some more when my husband said he saw it coming by the look on my face. 

11. The volunteers

Not only is the race director awesome, but so are the volunteers. 

The aid stations were packed with so many happy, cheering people. Who could ask for more? 

👊Furthermore, the aid station captain who took care of me after I dropped out last year at mile five due to a strained adductor hallucis (big toe muscle) gave me the loudest, best cheers. 

It was a surprise that gave me a burst of energy.

June Graham, Brynn Cunningham, Amanda Love and WeeViews founder David Moore pose before the 2022 Cook Forest 25k. (Photo/Eric Harder)

Final words...

When things began feeling hard around mile 15, I dug in and “faked it,” smiling and waving as I ran through the last aid station.

It felt as if I had a responsibility to keep the vibe high for those around me in the final push, and by smiling.

I knew it would inject some positive feelings not only outward but inward as well, making the tough feel not so impossible.

In the end...

I was giddy and stoked to have finished.

Why? Because I really wanted to run this course...

  • Through the tall, tall trees
  • Along the river
  • With amazing women, friends and runners
  • Supported by a wonderful staff and volunteers, which I did not get to experience fully with my 2021 DNF.

2022 Cook Forest 25k, you were everything I wanted and more. 

The results

My place:

  • Third overall female
  • However, the podium only consists of the top woman and man, meaning that I technically won second in my age group

My time: 

Race day gear

Fuel

  • Carborocket 333 Half Evil All-in-one Endurance drink Lemonade + Caffeine (two scoops each in two 500 ML soft flasks)
  • Baked sweet potato chunks
  • Beet juice mixed with coconut water
  • About half a liter of plain water

Music

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Brynn Cunningham
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Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, backcountry skier, yogi, mom and writer. www.inhaleexhalerun.com

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