Triumph and Pain For Runners at the Annual Switchbacks Race


Coach Swager presents pickled pig feet to winter switchbacks 2020 champion Joseph Norwood.

Natalie Davies, Bleu Print Staff

A total of 48 runners and physics students came out to the middle of nowhere on Saturday, January 25th to run what the race flier calls “the toughest 5k you have ever attempted.”

The switchbacks race is a four loop 3.1 mile challenge for all who dare to run it. Coach Swager, who organizes and hosts the race each year, explained that this isn’t your average 5k.

“[The course consists of] dirt, rocks, uphill, poor footing predominantly on tight, rocky trails [that are] hopefully icy, slippery, and/or drift-covered. Also- the course is probably long,” Swager said. “The loops cover a section of the Waterloo trail system, and on Green Road, a little-traveled chunk of hills and dirt. Basically, it is the stuff that would make a Mule puke.”

Though this race may seem like a lot of fun, enjoyment was not the only factor that pushed people into doing it. In fact, the group of Chelsea distance runners, students, teachers, alumni, and locals ages 7 to 65 raced for a variety and combination of reasons and prizes including preparing for track season, beating their teachers/students, physics extra credit, T-shirts, or even a simple craving for this year’s winning prize—pickled pigs feet.

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  • Before the race runners prepare for a mental and physical battle with the hardest hills around here.

  • Runners dash toward the switchbacks for their first of four loops of the race.

  • Sawyer Northrop dashes down hill in the last full loop of the race.

  • Freshman Julia Kause races towards the hill.

  • Coach Swager presents pickled pig feet to winter switchbacks 2020 champion Joseph Norwood.

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Though there were lots of different groups involved, the majority of racers were Chelsea distance runners, coaches, and alumni. Emily Chizek(‘20), who has run the switchbacks quite a few times, claimed the course conditions were “the worst she’s ever seen it.” Despite the treacherous conditions, she was happy about the race and beating one of her teachers.

“I sort of enjoyed it,” she said. “I beat Mr. Pedlow. Overall, the race was fun, but I sort of felt like I was dying [while running it].”

AP Physics student Sierra Martinez-Kratz(‘21) explained that this race meant more to her than the 5-10 points students received for completing a write up in physics terms about their experiences.

“It may not have been worth the extra credit, but it was definitely worth the experience,” Martinez-Kratz said.

Joseph Norwood(‘20), this year’s top finisher, battled Will Scott(‘20) for first place and completed the race in under 21 minutes, just seconds ahead of Will. Norwood took home and tried this year’s tasty prize. The taste of victory must have been a different kind of sweet for Norwood and not so sweet for the pig whose feet got pickled and eaten. 

There was not only a prize for the winner, but also a variety of “unique somethings” for some older speedy local runners and anyone who ran the entire race without walking.

In both the summer and winter switchback races there is an opportunity for people who run the whole race to get a “NUR” or “I survived the Switchbacks” bumper sticker or an iconic T-shirt that honors one of the coaches who figured out where the big zigzagging switchback hill was and started bringing runners there and running it. The shirt says, “I AM MIKE HOLIK.” Though those prizes have been around a while, Swager explained that the prize for beating your age by 20 minutes is new.

“Anyone beating their age by 20 minutes or more wins a beverage of his or her choice at the Waterloo Market immediately after the race,” Swager said. “For example, if someone is 52 years old, but runs a 31 minute race –Bottoms up!”

Many dedicated runners and students of all ages showed up and worked out together. Everyone may have had different experiences and motives for finishing, but most can agree that the race was worth running.

“It was an experience of a lifetime that was challenging mentally and physically,” AP physics student Kasey Matusik(‘21) said. “I am glad I did it.”

If you are interested in running the switchbacks race in the future, keep in touch with Coach Swager or a Chelsea runner over the summer or check out to see photos from previous years and get information about the summer version of the race this July.