Wow, that was painful! Yesterday, Debbie and I ran the Lookout Mountain 50 Mile Trail Race. Now I know what she goes through when running one of her signature distance events. After the Grindstone 100 in October, she said she wanted to do one more ultra in 2011. She ran the 2010 Upchuck 50k in in the Rock/Creek Trail Series, and we enjoyed Chattanooga, Tennessee; so it made sense for her to register for Lookout Mountain, a race that we learned about last year.
What didn’t make sense was that I asked her to sign me up too! Her first ultra was the 1999 Vermont 50 Mile Ride & Run, which is where we met. I’ve run several 50k’s and done other hard trail stuff, including covering 50+ miles in the mountains on training runs/hikes, but I had never put on a bib number for a 50 mile trail race. I figured what the heck.
We arranged for Deb’s parents, Schieffer’s, to take our five-year old and two-year old for the weekend so that we could jet down to Chattanooga for the race. It was a quick trip. Less than 48 hours from beginning until end…with 9+ hours of running in the middle. I worked half a day on Friday, Debbie picked me up at work, we flew to ATL from BDL, and after a short mechanical delay, were in Chattanooga by 7:30 P.M. We grabbed dinner at Sluggo’s North Vegetarian Cafe (a new favorite that we discovered last year), and were in bed at our hotel by 9:30 P.M. The plan was to be back in Connecticut by mid-afternoon on Sunday, but I had to finish the race first…
I had a nutty week at work leading up to the race, and I was battling a head cold. Before the start, my voice was a barely audible croak, and after the race, the rasp made me sound like aged-rocker Tom Waits. I felt the need to tell people that I don’t usually sound like this. I wasn’t in the best condition to run, but that’s how it goes.
We got up early on Saturday for the white knuckled drive up to the start/finish at Covenant College across the state line in the town of Lookout Mountain, Georgia. It had rained heavily the day before the race, so the mountain roads were slick, a foreboding for what the trails were going to be like. The race was sold out with 250 registrants. I’m not sure how many toed the line, but given the cold and wet conditions, I’m sure there was attrition both before and during the event. We were fully committed.
We had some last-minute drop bag sorting and labeling to do, and froze while hustling around before the start. We didn’t want to wear too much, but we had to be smart about not warming up. In the end, I started the race with a Capilene sleeveless base layer, my Shenipsit Striders Capilene short sleeve shirt, arm warmers, tri-shorts, and compression socks. I wore a fleece bonnet that covered my ears, and gloves, which I never removed. I hemmed and hawed about my sunglasses, but eventually wore them, and I’m glad I did. It started out cloudy, but by mid-morning, it was clear with brilliant sunshine. We learned that last year’s race was colder, but drier, which is an important factor. The combination of wet (water-logged trails) and cold (low 30’s Fahrenheit at the start) with a breeze, made for an epic day.
Debbie had a good race in the slow conditions. She missed the women’s record of 8:51, but won the race in 9:16:20, and was 20th overall. She is happy with the result and excited to enter a rest phase. This was her sixth ultra of the year (Traprock 50K, Bear Mt. 50 Miler, Laurel Highlands Ultra, TARC 12 Hour, and Grindstone 100 were the others), with lots of short stuff mixed in. I am biased, but I am impressed. She did all of this in a year that she stopped breast feeding, potty trained our daughter, gave away our crib, worked part-time, and focused on her training (with help from Coach Al Lyman) more than ever. She is in her prime for this distance stuff, and after running with her for several hours yesterday, I’m convinced she can get stronger, particularly on the uphills.
My Lookout plan was to check my ego, throttle back on the speed, and shadow her, which is if you know us, actually running 30 seconds to a minute in front of her. She prefers to follow and I prefer to pull. We need to give each other space because we have completely different running styles. I like the ups and she likes the downs. I knew that I had to run 25 miles at a reasonable speed, get to 31, and then just hang on because the last 20 were going to be a whole new experience for me.
The course was stunning. I highly recommend this race and the entire Rock/Creek Trail Series. There were 6,300 feet of elevation gain and 6,300 feet of elevation loss, so it was moderately hilly. The race is rated 4 for terrain and 4 for surface by Ultrarunning Magazine, which is pretty hard. With all the water on the course, I would bump the surface up to the maximum 5 rating, at least for a day. There were incredible views as we ran the ridge in multiple directions. The rock overhangs were spectacular. In some spots, we were running on narrow singletrack with sheer drop-offs of more than 100 feet. This is not a race for runners with acrophobia.
The first 25 miles featured large groups of runners sticking together as we crisscrossed the ridge. There were a lot of hairpin turns and a lot of streams to cross. I can’t believe we tried to keep our feet dry because around the 14-mile mark, there was a massive creek crossing. We learned that this was a dry trail just days before the race, but heavy rains flooded this section. It was more like a pond than a creek. The water was murky brown and freezing. It was waist deep for about 100 meters, and there was no way around it. I got a little too far right, slipped and went in up to my chest, dunking my left arm in the water while trying to regain my stability. My left hand was cold for the rest of the day. It took five miles of running to get my core temperature warmed up.
There were several more stream crossings and a massive switch-backed climb before we returned to Covenant College at the 22 mile mark. Debbie caught up to me at the aid station. I spent too long searching for my drop bag. This was my only gripe. All of the volunteers were fantastic, but some of the aid stations lacked organization and searching for your stuff among 200 other identical Ziploc bags (race rules) was time-consuming and frustrating. If there is a “next time,” I’ll be sure to put some colorful tape on mine.
Debbie and I were close together over the next 14 miles. For most of that time, I could hear her chatting with other runners, a mere 20-30 seconds back. I chose to soldier on in silence. We met up again the first time through the Lula Lake Aid Station at mile 28. Right after the aid station, we passed the most spectacular waterfall. These are the lower falls of Rock Creek. It sounded like a freight train way off in the distance and it was stunning, with mist rising several hundred feet. I wished I had my camera.
We went up a steep climb to the top of the ridge and ran together most of the way. We were also together on the gnarly tornado damaged trail that led to the Long Branch Aid Station at mile 34. We left the aid station together at the start of the 4.5 mile loop that brought us back to Long Branch at mile 38. I opened up a gap on the hilly terrain, but she caught me, passed me, and pulled away on a quad pounding descent. Moments later, I stepped awkwardly, twisted my ankle badly, and hit the ground. It was a spectacular fall and left me a bit stunned. I stayed on the ground for a minute, pondering what a long 14 mile walk it would be to the finish…in the dark.
I gingerly walked the next mile as the trail twisted and wound its way back to Long Branch. I was able to run the last bit to the aid station, increasing the pressure on my left ankle, as the stinging pain faded. I filled my hydration pack, popped a Tylenol (my third of the day) sat down, tightened the laces on my shoes, and ate some potatoes with salt. Amazingly, I got through this race without a hot spot or blister anywhere on my feet. I also grabbed my headlamp from my drop bag, an ominous move that indicated I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get to the finish. It was chaotic at the aid station with runners coming and going, lots of volunteers, and crews. Usually I’m the one crewing for Debbie, so it was a fun and unique experience to have a volunteer ask if I needed help.
There was a short road section after the aid station, and then we returned to the gnarly section of tornado damaged trail with tons of logging slash, and then a monster climb back up to the ridge. I was able to run through most of this while focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. It was slow going and I was passed by several runners. It helped that this was an out and back section, so I knew what to expect, and it was nice that there were a lot of runners headed to Long Branch whom I enjoyed greeting.
I was hoping that Debbie was hammering away towards the record and I knew that she would be worried that once I was dropped, that it would be a long night for me. Little did she know (or I know) that I would get a second wind. Second wind may not be the right description. I actually came back from the dead. The descent off the ridge back to Lula Lake Aid Station was insanely steep and I took it slowly. One spot had makeshift ropes fashioned to aid the runners going up and down. I went by the waterfall again, pausing to take in the view in the late afternoon sunshine. I had been intermittently pulling down my arm warmers on climbs and pulling them back up in the shady downhill sections; but I never removed them. I got to Lula and didn’t stay long. The volunteers told me it was 5 miles to the finish, but I think they fibbed! I grabbed some potato chips, after surviving for most of the day on Hammer Perpetuum, Hammer Gel, Raw Food Bars, and potatoes.
Amazingly, after Lula, at 44 miles, I got that death-defying second wind, which lasted for four miles. Without this surge, I might still be out on the trail. I used it to my advantage and picked up the pace through some of the most amazing singletrack that I have run. I was retracing my steps from earlier in the race, but it felt different and better. Eventually, I ran out of gas again after hitting the power line section. It was getting colder as the sun went below the horizon. The last 2 miles were absolute hell, as the trail wound along a muddy streambed.
I emerged on campus after one final climb, ran across the summit parking lots, and finished in the gloaming after 9:32:55 of constant running, which was good for 32nd place, 11 spots behind my favorite runner. There was no fanfare at the finish. It was cold, windy, and a handful of folks were huddled around a fire. I walked back to our rental car, a bit worried about Debbie, since I expected to see her at the line. When I spotted her muddy shoes outside our car, I breathed a sigh of relief. She was inside, shaking uncontrollably, and trying to get warm. She only finished 16 minutes in front of me, so I had pulled back some time on her.
When she saw me, she was very surprised. I was thinking, “Wow, she has such confidence in her spouse.” She was fully expecting me to walk the last 14 with my headlamp, after dropping me two and a half hours earlier. Instead, we shared big smiles of amazement in the back seat. Somehow, I willed myself through this one. We changed up and returned to the finish. It was freezing, so we spent several hours in a small Army style first aid tent that had been set up with a wood stove, folding chairs, and cots. It was mostly bliss, though every time the wind blew the tent flaps open, we cringed while being blasted with cold air. Eventually, Debbie got to climb the podium and received some nice prizes from the folks at Rock/Creek.
The men’s winner was Johnny Clemons in 7:23:04. He was followed by Troy Shellhammer in 7:32:52 and Nick Lewis in 7:42:56. They were the only three to break 8-hours. I remember passing Clemons on my way out to Long Branch. He was coming towards me at blazing speed. I was so surprised to see him, that it didn’t register that he was the race leader. My lack of pre-race preparation was evident since I didn’t even know that this section of the course was out and back. My “nice job” comment didn’t leave my sore throat until he was 50 feet passed me. I was with another runner and we both marveled that this guy was crushing it. The second place woman was Lora Liu in 10:05:54. Third was Molly Freeman in 10:15:22.
Back in the tent, we shared Lookout war stories and chatted amiably with our tent-mates about other ultras past and future. Every few minutes, someone else would poke their head in and share good cheers, while we listened to runners cross the line on the other side of the tent wall. Eventually, we were able to gather all of our returned drop bags, and drive back to Chattanooga for a well-earned shower and dinner. We were both completely knackered, but we were in good spirits.
The Chattanooga trail scene is fantastic. The area is an endurance sports junkie’s Mecca. This race, like the others in the Rock/Creek Trail Series, benefits Wild Trails, a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit conservation organization. I first said it after Upchuck in 2010, and I’ll say it again. “We shall return.”