Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Monday, December 7, 2009
The Pine Mountain Trail begins in FDR Park and extends 23 miles mostly along a ridge. The trail is known for its diverse terrain, crossing creeks, climbing up and over ridge tops and traversing past oak, hickory, pine and maple trees. Many sections of the trail are also known for the degree of technical difficulty. The trail is littered with protruding rocks made even more difficult in the fall by the leaves covering the trail.
The annual Pine Mountain 40-miler put on by GUTS uses almost the entire trail and adds some adjoining ones. This year's race was held on Sunday, December 6th.
I arrived at Kelly's house at 4:00am and we quickly hit the road. Even after having taken the wrong interstate and making a small detour, we still managed to arrive at the park around 6:00am. We picked up our race packets and waited in the car with the heat on. It was a chilly 28 degrees. Other runners were also arriving and beginning to gather. At 6:50am, we got out of the car, met up with everyone and soon walked up to the road where the race would start. It was barely dusk as we stood there listening to last minute instructions. Something in the instructions stuck in my head, "You road runners are probably going to hate this course, but all you trail runners, you are going to love it!" That's all the motivation I needed to hear. I was ready to roll and soon we were off!
We ran a short segment of asphalt before we hit the single track trail going through the woods. Another running buddy, Robin, ran along with me and a few others. Robin was just off of winning the Pinhoti 100 miler a few weeks prior. It was good to run with her although it wouldn't be long before she ran up ahead and left me behind.
The initial part of the race takes you up onto a ridge by the FDR Overlook. The sun was peaking over the horizon and the views were already spectacular, but there was no time for sightseeing. I hooked up with a small group of three other runners. The guy leading the "train" had a heavy accent and was a cross between Ernest ("Now what I mean, Vern?") and that mumbling guy on King of the Hill. Anyway, they were setting a pretty good pace and every once in a while they would pull ahead and then I would catch up. We kept up this rubber banding action through the first aid station at Fox Den Cove (5.9 miles) and through the next aid station at Mollyhugger Hill (10.8 miles). We came down a long decline off a ridge and were about to cross a road in the park, when I saw Robin. She apparently had decided that she wasn't up for the full course and was turning around. We encouraged each other as I ran by.
After seeing Robin, we began a long ascent. The trail here was increasingly rocky and the guys ahead of me started hesitating more and more with the terrain. I thought they were being just a tad too cautious and I decided to make my move. I found a spot along the trail and passed them. I was actually surprised how quickly I pulled away, but was glad to be on my own and set my own pace.
I was also glad to see the Dowdell Knob aid station (13.5 miles.) I took advantage and scarfed half a turkey and cheese sandwich while washing it down with a Coke. You haven’t tried a Coke until you’ve tried it in the middle of an ultra race. Amazing! As I left the aid station, the guys I left behind were making their way in. That would be the last I would see of them. Heading down the trail with sandwich still in hand, I saw another friend, Beth and she said, “Go Javi, you’re looking good!” I replied, “Tell me that on the way back.” There was more than half the race still left to run.
I somehow managed to get into no man’s land. It’s a weird part of an ultra race where you don’t see any runners ahead of you or behind you. It was just me and the trail. Also, I was amused to see signs occasionally on the trees that read, “Safety Zone, No Hunting”. It made me wonder if I should have brought my orange running vest.
Soon I came up on the aid station at Rocky Point (17.82 miles), appropriately named I might add. My spirits were high and I was feeling pretty good. I grabbed a PB&J, downed some Powerade, thanked the volunteers and continued down the trail. The next section of trail would change considerably from everything I’d seen so far. It soon came into a creek bed that I would have to cross several times. The vegetation was different too. I managed to keep my feet dry and just kept on pushing. I was excited to get to the next station since it would be after the midway point. However, it seemed like it took forever to get there. I guess I was starting to feel the miles.
After some time, I finally saw the tip of the TV tower that marked where the next aid station would be. I picked up my pace and was glad to see my buddy Tom greeting me at the station. I was looking through the items on the table. Cookies, pretzels, potato chips all in abundance, but nothing sounded good. When all of a sudden an aluminum tray filled with grilled cheese sandwiches was put in front of my face. Nirvana! Maybe it was the miles on the trails, but that was the best tasting grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever had. Onward!
It was only a couple more miles to the next aid station and mostly down hill, so I had a good pace going. Once at Rocky Point aid station, I topped off my water bottle and continued down the trail going back the way we came earlier in the day. The next few miles were uneventful and I eventually came into the aid station at Dowdell Knob. I was just about to leave the station when I turned around and there was Kelly. I was surprised to see her. We left the aid station together and I would soon realize that I was going to have a hard time riding her coat tails. She was running strong and steady, even on the climbs. I hung with her for about three miles and then saw her quickly leave me behind. It was fun to run with her while it lasted. I wouldn’t see her again until the finish.
Once again I was by myself. After the next aid station, I was sent down a different trail we hadn’t yet traveled. This was to be the toughest portion of the race for me. This white blazed trail was extra treacherous with even more leaves covering the trail and the rocks beneath. Plus it was very undulating, so I couldn’t keep a good pace. It was only 2.5 miles to the next aid station, but I thought I would never get there. Of course I did, but it seemed like an eternity.
Once there, I refueled and chatted with the volunteers. I realized that I only had six or so miles left to go. All of a sudden, my melancholy mood from the last few miles changed to a much more positive one. I thanked the volunteers and headed out like a horse to the barn. My feet were sore from the rocky terrain, but I was pushing ahead and making good progress. There was one more hefty climb to tackle and I was soon at its initial slopes. I chugged ahead, walking up the hill and putting one foot in front of the other. As I made my way up, I was slowly coming back onto the ridge we were on that morning, this time under the full light of day. Great views!
At the top I came upon the last aid station. This one was unmanned, but water is all I really needed, so no problem. I crossed another road and enjoyed the long descent down the other side of the ridge. This was it, I could feel the end was near! My pace picked up when I realized that I could still make it under eight hours. Down the trail I went. Beth, who I ran into earlier at an aid station, was waiting on the trail for her husband. It was good to see her and she told me that the finish was just minutes ahead. That pushed me even more. A few more turns on the trail and then I could just make out the camp area through the trees. Next thing you know, I was crossing a foot bridge and running across an open field straight for the finish. As I stomped on the orange spray painted line, I saw the clock which read, 7:56:16. Sweet, I was done and made it under eight hours!
Kelly was there to greet me and so were some of the other runners. It was good to be finished and I was soon enjoying some chili and a beer. Why else would you do an ultra, but for the food at the finish? I’m sure FDR would approve.
I borrowed a couple of pictures taken by Beth Blackwell and Amanda Tichacek, I hope they don't mind.
Other Pine Mtn 40 reports:
Monday, November 2, 2009
That describes this year's Pumpkin Butt 50K, held yearly by the fun folks of the Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS). I barely beat the cap of forty runners by getting my application in just days before the race. I didn't feel confident that I would complete all five loops. My running in September had been pretty good with solid mileage, but October saw very sporadic running with the coming of my newborn son. I barely got a 20-miler in a couple of weeks before the race. Still, I'm registered for the Pine Mountain 40-miler in December and if anything, I needed to treat this race as a training run. So, the idea was to go out conservative and see how I felt.
Up and at 'em early on Halloween morning and I made my way to the race. The day was looming dark and dreary with the forecast of rain. However, it was eerily warm although it would cool off as the day progressed. I arrived at the race site, checked in with the race crew and caught up with everyone as they arrived. The great thing about small, low-key races is the intimacy of the event. Everyone is chatting it up and exchanging predictions for the day. The set up looked promising with plenty of food, snacks, drinks and of course, pumpkins. Each race participant is obligated to bring a pumpkin. You see, the course is five loops and on the fourth loop, each runner draws for a pumpkin. You might get lucky and draw a tiny pumpkin or you might get unlucky and draw an 8-10 pounder. When I was at the super market the night before picking out my pumpkin for the race, I wanted to create good karma, so I picked a decently sized 1.5 pounder. That karma would come back to help me.
After a few short words from GUTS president, Janice Anderson, we were off. It was still dark as we entered the park and hit the trail, but soon it would lighten up. It was raining too, so plenty of puddles and mud along the trail. There was a small group that quickly got ahead while I was just trying to get into my groove. A buddy of mine, Darren, caught my stride and the two of us would run together for a good part of the race.
Within a couple of miles of easy, rolling terrain, we hit the first climb. It has a steep start before easing up a bit. Then you hit a patch of rocky terrain where you have to really watch your footing. This part is called Pigeon Hill. Once you get through that, an even steeper climb begins with a bit of a switchback as you make your way up the west side of Little Kennesaw Mountain. At this point, you are taking your first walking steps in earnest. When you summit, you are welcomed by a pair of Civil War-era cannons. Experiencing the climb first hand, I imagined how tough it was for the Union fighters to get up the hill while being fired upon from above by the Rebel troops. Anyways, this wasn't the end of the climbing, after another lower summit, there's another hefty climb to the top of Big Kennesaw. At the top, visibility was poor due to the fog. On a good clear day, you can see the Atlanta skyline, but not today.
I felt good on my first go at it. Darren was still with me over the top. We were on trail all the way until you get over the top, then you take the asphalt access road back down off the mountain. As I was making my way down, another buddy, Spurgeon, caught up and passed me. He was joking that if I heard rumbling cannons, it wasn't Civil War ghosts. It was the chili he had for dinner the night before. Ha, ha. He was also telling me to hit the tangents on the way down. Made sense, think cycling tactics. You gotta cut the right line to shorten the distance through the curves coming down the mountain. Almost at the bottom, you hit the trail once more to go the last mile or so of the loop. And you're back at the start.
As I was coming in, I counted who was going back out for their second loop. You alternate direction on each loop. I tell ya, the verdict is still out for me on which direction is more difficult. Anyway, I counted who was going back out and who was at the aid station when I arrived. Turns out I was eighth (?!?) place. One of the guys who had arrived before me was in costume as the Pope. Of course, I had to beat the Pope. Also, Darren, came in ahead of me too. But I replenished with some pretzels and refilled my water bottle and got out of there for my second loop with Darren ahead of me in 6th place.
So back the way we came. After a bit of trail, we were going up on the asphalt road to the top of Big Kennesaw. Obviously not as technical, but a mean climb nonetheless. The worst grade is in the middle of the climb with the last third evening out some, before a final steep push to the top. I could see Darren ahead of me for the entire climb, but I caught him near the top and was passed him by the time we got to the top of Little Kennesaw. The descent off Little Kennesaw in this direction is very rocky and rooty. I was having a little less trouble apparently than Darren and was able to put some space between us. At the bottom, I caught up with another one of my buddies, Jon, who was dressed as a giant whoopie cushion. He had a very fast first loop, but look like he was having trouble with this second loop. Maybe it was the custome. So now all of a sudden, I was in 5th place. Couldn't believe it. But I knew that Darren had the legs to catch me, especially once we got off the technical portion of the trail.
Sure enough, once I arrived back at the aid station. Darren was right behind me. We left together for our third loop. We ran together until we were back at Pigeon Hill going in the same direction as the first loop. Darren decided to walk this part and I felt like I could once again pull ahead. As I made my way up, I came across a strange site. Adult men playing with remote control cars on the rocks. Weird to me, but I guess no stranger than a bunch of people going up and over a mountain several times for the hell of it. We'd see them again on the last couple of loops.
Now on the third loop, the legs start to definitely complain with each climb. I made it to the top of Little Kennesaw with Darren still behind me, although he was catching up on the saddle trail to Big Kennesaw. Another summit and back on the road down. I tried to remember what Spurgeon told me, cut the straightest line possible off the mountain. Quads were burning on the way down, but I made it back to aid station feeling relatively good. Ate a couple of sandwiches and then it was time to draw for my pumpkin. I reached into the hat and came out with #34. Turns out #34 was a dinky little pumpkin. Sweet, that good karma coming back for me! It fit nicely in my Nathan gear vest. I was hands free for the rest of the race. I left the station as Darren was drawing for his pumpkin. It would be a while before I would see him again and I wouldn't need to worry about him for the rest of the race. You'll learn why in a bit.
Fourth loop...ugh! Here we go again. The thing about this race is that the start/aid station/finish is at the lowest point of the course. Every time you head out for another loop, you can expect to be mostly climbing for a good while. So, back up the asphalt road to the top of Big Kennesaw. I was relieved by two things, 1) knowing this was the last time going up in this direction and 2) I would catch Nils close to the top of Big Kennesaw. That put me in 4th place! I remember thinking, "Shit, you gotta hang on Javi!" I pushed to put some distance between me and Nils, but I was thinking that he would catch me. Nils is a much stronger runner than I am, but this day he never would catch back up.
After passing Nils, I hit the tops of both summits and hurried down Little Kennesaw and then Pigeon Hill. The climb down hurt with every step, and the rocks were extra tricky now. Still, in my head was one mantra, "Keep it moving!"
About a mile from the aid station, I saw the first place runner. Then a huge gap before I saw Sally in second place as I neared the aid station. Next in line was Spurgeon and for a brief moment I thought maybe I could catch him. As I passed by him, I joked that I would try and he said, "Just keep movin' and you most likely will." Not the case. Anyway, I came into the station, ate a bit, topped off my water bottle and thanked everybody there. Out for my last loop!
Back out on the course, I saw everyone that was "behind" me, it was a while before I saw Darren coming up the trail. "I was wondering about you. What happened?", I said to him. He smiled, turned around so I could see his backpack. He had one of the largest pumpkins in his pack, probably a 10-15 pounder! No wonder I left him far behind since I last him. He had to carry that big ass thing, while I lucked out with an itty-bitty pumpkin.
This time the climb up Pigeon Hill was extremely slow and painful. I kept looking over my shoulder thinking surely someone was going to catch up at any moment, but I remained on the climb totally by myself. That also meant no sight of Spurgeon and Sally in front of me either.
Nearing the top of Big Kennesaw, you cross the road that you take to go down. As I was going across, I heard Sally coming from my right as she had already begun her descent. I yelled, "Sally, I'm not going to catch you now." She replied, "Not much left now. Hurry up!" And that I did. Topped Big Kennesaw for the last time and made my way down. While I was descending, I was thinking back on the race. Here I was originally thinking that I wouldn't finish all five loops and now I was trying to hold onto fourth place. How cool is that? Still, no time to reminesce. The job wasn't done. The run down also hurt, but I knew it was almost over. I looked at my watch and realized that I might just do this in under six hours. Holy crap, I needed to step up! As I got closer to the finish, I felt the pressure of beating the watch. Half mile to go, watch read "5:55". Surely, I could squeeze out a ten-minute mile to finish this off. Luckily, most of the way was down hill. I ran my ass off and my legs were screaming. Off the trail and just a few hundred yards left to go..."5:58". Almost there! Turn the bend and I could see everybody. Just a few more yards... I ran in and while the time keeper was recording my time, I repeatedly asked, "Did I beat 6 hours?" He looked up and said, "Yep, 5:59:49." Wow, just made it! And I was officially fourth place!!
As exciting as that was, there's not much celebration. A pat on the back with a "Good Job!" and that was it. I picked up my free prize, a cool pair of wool GUTS socks and proceeded to get a beer and a plateful of BBQ. Gotta love low-key ultra-trail races!
(Thanks to Rahn for the pic of me on the trail and the photo of the cannons.)
P.S. Check out my buddy, Dave, and his blog for another take on the same race:
or Beth's version:
Friday, October 2, 2009
With my birthday on the horizon, the original plan was to hit the Duncan Ridge Trail. One of the so-called toughest trails east of the Mississippi, the DRT is a 32 or so mile trail that intersects the Appalachian Trail twice in north Georgia. Back in July, seven of my running buddies attempted to complete it, but only two did. Granted it was a hot day, but it definitely proved the ruggedness of the trail. I wanted to try it. However, recent torrential rains that dropped over 24 inches in the Atlanta and north Georgia area, quickly made us have to reconsider the idea of running the DRT. Mainly due to the fact that one end of the trail is only accesible by forest road and all the rain would have made getting through the mud impossible. so the back up plan was to run about 39-40 miles on the Appalachian Trail, starting at Woody Gap and traveling southward to Springer Mountain and then back.
We then had to ditch the idea when I learned about my dad having to go into see his cardiologist for a procedure on the day we had set aside to make this birthday run. I almost cancelled the whole idea until we came up with yet another alternative that would allow me to get my b-day ultra run in and still be there for my dad. Instead of running up in north Georgia on the Friday we selected, we decided to run over night at a local state park through the night. Not quite the same bragging rights, but it would still accomplish the goal of getting my birthday miles in. It would mean sacrificing that night of sleep, but it sounded like fun to me and my running buddy, Woody. I did run 9 miles that morning, however, this was before I realized that I would be running through the night that evening. I was committed to getting in the 30+ run in with one run.
I gathered all my gear together, water bottles, hydration pack, food, headlamps, fresh batteries, extra clothes, etc. I picked Woody up at about 10pm and we made our way to the park. On the way, we stopped to get coffee knowing we would need it and also discussed where the best place to park the car would be. We didn't want to park it in the usual spots of the park, because we wanted to avoid any unneeded attention by park rangers or area police. We found a quiet spot in a subdivision about a mile or so from the main visitor's center at the park. Entrance to the park and the trail was a little over a mile away. 11pm, time to get on with it. Just like that, we were off!
We soon encountered a problem, a bridge on the road towards the park was out due to construction. Normally, the bridge goes over a railroad track, so we had to back track a ways to find access to the rail bed and run on that to find a way out on the opposite side of the road. A little bush-whackin' later and we were on the other side. This set us back about 10 minutes, but we were not going out to beat any time.
Visitor's center is at the north end of the park. There is a trail that begins at the center but the ranger's quarters are also near by. So we had to run down the road past the entrance and parallel the park until we could get on another trail entrance that connects with the park's trail. Fired up the headlamps and for the next eight hours or so, we would be running on park trails for the most part. One thing you get right away when running in the dark with a headlamp is this unusual feeling of running with tunnel vision. It takes a little while to get used to it, but once you do, your peripheral still suffers. Careful to pick up our feet over the roots and rocks, we got into a groove and within the first couple of hours covered quite a bit of miles.
Being used to running at this park in the day time, it was a completely different experience running it at night. The park trail crosses a couple of local roads. In order to disctract attention, we would turn off the headlamps as we neared these roads to cross. The trail was quiet and for the most part, we were covering alot of ground with out much trouble. The night was moderately humid and in the open fields there was a low lying fog. At one point, we noticed a couple pair of gold dots in the trees and quickly realized that it was two pair of deer eyes. The white tails ran away and from that point forward we would see several pairs more through out the night, always hoping they were deer and not coyotes.
We were both carrying our own water with a bladder hydration pack and a couple of hand helds. With the humidity, it was important to stay well hydrated. Luckily at one end of the park, there's a water fountain which allowed us to top off our hand helds. A couple of times, we stopped to eat a sandwich or take a gel. It was important to stay well fueled too. Pace was easy going and although there are several good inclines in the park, we stayed away from taking the trail that goes over the top of a couple of substantial summits. The run was about getting the miles in. that was the goal.
Towards the last couple of hours, we were definitely walking more. Woody had more legs than I did, but he was being a friend and keeping with me. Great pacer! In order to cover the miles we needed, we had to double up on sections of the trail. Sounds simple enough, but sometimes covering the same ground is discouraging. Particularly hard when we were getting closer to the car and then have head back out the opposite way. Regardless of the self-inflicted cruelty, we were enjoying the run and counting down the miles.
We noticed that the glow in the sky was slowly, but surely, changing to daylight. We were on the trail on the way back past the visitor's center. Soon that was it, we were done with the trails. Out on the roads, civilization had come to life. Commuters were making their way to work and we were wrapping up an all night run. I'm sure our idea of fun, was their idea of crazy. I guess it's just all perspective. We backtracked along the train tracks, made our way back to the other side of the downed bridge and in no time were back at the car. Mission accomplished!
Neither of us carried a Garmin, but knowing the distances in the park and calculating the various trails we ran and the distance back to the car, we called it 39 miles. If we are off, it's only by plus or minus a mile or so. Eight plus hours of running and it is safe to say we got the distance in. Also, recall that I ran nine miles that previous morning, so all in all, I got almost fifty miles of running in within 24 hours. Not shabby.
We changed into dry clothes at the car and cleaned up some. What next? How did we celebrate? Breakfast at Chick-fil-a. Chicken biscuit, hash browns, coffee and a chocolate shake. Too much reward for my birthday miles.
By the way, my dad did great with his procedure and I was able to be there for him along with the rest of my family.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Mt. Elbert stands at 14,433 ft and is the second highest peak in the lower 48 states after Mt. Whitney in California. It is considered a Class 1 hike, meaning it is relatively easy by mountain climbing standards. Mt. Massive stands at 14,421 ft and is considered a Class 2 climb, making it slightly more difficult than Mt. Elbert. Both peaks are the two highest peaks in Colorado and are part of the Sawatch Mountain Range. Leadville, CO is only a few miles away from both peaks.
I flew in to Denver the night before, where I met up with Mike, whose flight arrived just 30 minutes after mine. A co-worker of Mike's, Gavin, had also flown in for the weekend's adventure and since he arrived before either of us, he rented an H3 and picked us both up. Once in the car, it was Leadville-bound. We stopped for pizza just outside of Denver and then made it to Leadville late in the evening. After picking up a few food supplies, we unceremoniously hit the sack. Wake up call was at 5:00am.
Day One: Mt. Elbert, June 20, 2009
Gavin had already climbed Mt. Elbert on another occasion, so his plan was to drop us off at the trailhead and go tackle Mt. Huron, another 14’er some 20 miles away. He was to come back and get us after his climb; a part of the plan that should have been thought out a bit more, but more on that later. Mike and I were at the trailhead of Mt. Elbert’s North Trail and ready to start right at 6:00am.
The North Trail starts at 10,040 feet, almost twice as high as the high point back home in Georgia, Brasstown Bald. Altitude was already giving us a bit of a headache and it was yet to be seen how it was going to affect us on the climb. For now, we felt pretty good and excited to get going. The trail is about 4.5 miles to the summit with a total elevation gain of 4,700 feet. It starts rather gradual for a mile or so to a trail junction with the Colorado Trail (Leadville 100 runners in August will go down this section of the Colorado Trail) and then begins to climb as it nears the tree line. The weather was cooperating with partly cloudy skies but we were concerned that it may turn for the worse. We reached the tree line at 11,900 feet keeping a good pace.
After a quick snack break, we hit the trail again out in the open and headed up the slope towards the mountain’s northeast ridge on a series of switchbacks. The terrain was grassy and mossy and we ran into a bit of mountain wildlife, some birds and a couple of marmots. Around this time, a couple of trail runners came up the trail with a Dingo dog. They passed us like nothing. I was jealous. I would love to hit these beautiful trails with my running shoes and my dog, Lilly, but first I would have to spend a few days acclimatizing for sure. Anyway, we would see these guys again on their way back down.
When we reached the ridge, we were around 12,500 feet. I was feeling OK and keeping pace, although it was obvious that I wasn’t moving as quickly as I normally would. I’ll blame the altitude. Mike thought we were making good time and we steadily kept forward momentum. Even though we hit the trail early, we did pass several folks on our way up. It appears that due to the relatively “easy” climb, many locals routinely go up this mountain. After a while on the ridge, the trail ascends steeply by some rock formations and to the right of the ridge. We soon saw the trail runners making their way back down. The one in the lead did stop for a second to chat and we learned that he was from Boulder. Very cool. Continuing upwards, I was breathing heavy and I could feel my heart beating in my chest. Still, we maintained and soon came to an opening were we would get our first glimpse of the snow capped mountain range on the opposite side of Elbert. The view was amazing!
The rest of the climb was covered in snow. No trail to follow except for the tracks left behind by other hikers. The snow felt crunchy and footing wasn’t much of an issue. With about 500 feet left to go, we came to a flat area where you can see the summit ridge off to the left. I was excited to see the summit and anxiously began crossing the ridge towards it. Once there, there was another hiker taking some mandatory photos. I offered to take one of him while Mike looked around and took some of his own. The hiker then reciprocated and took a couple pics of us. I was blown away by the view. Luckily, the weather was cooperating and we could clearly see the rest of the mountain range around us. Just stunning!
At the summit, there is a thick wooden stick that has been shoved into the ground claiming the summit. On it, one can read names and dates of others who came before us. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a pen to add our own names. Other hikers started arriving while Mike and I finished up a couple of sandwiches we had brought. It was time to make our way down. In the distance, we could see some heavier clouds moving in, so we knew we needed to get moving. It took us four hours to reach the summit, it was soon evident that it would take a lot less to get down.
It didn’t take long to get back past the snow. We noticed that traffic going up was thickening. We were glad that we had begun our hike so early. About a third of the way down, we were hiking in fog. We could see the trail but nothing of the valley east of us. Our toes and quads were feeling the descent. We passed a couple of guys that we saw earlier on our way up; they were still climbing but looked a bit dehydrated. We chatted with them to check on them, but they seemed to feel like finishing. So we continued our way down.
Soon the tree line was back in view and we were below the clouds. It started sprinkling as we took a moment to grab a bite to eat and put on our rain jackets while chatting with a woman who was waiting for her husband to come back down the mountain.
Feeling good about our accomplishment, we still had a couple of miles to go to finish the job. We were looking forward to meeting back up with Gavin and thought of him in his own 14’er adventure. As we made our way through the trees and back to the trailhead, the rain intensified. Surprisingly, there were still people making their way up. We reached the trailhead and the parking lot and no sign of Gavin. Cell coverage was very limited and we couldn’t reach him by phone. We did the only thing we could think of, and that was to continue hiking along the forest road. This part was quickly going to become the least fun of the day. Trudging down the forest road getting soaked, we started sticking our thumbs out to passing SUV’s in hopes of a ride. After a couple of miles, someone finally did stop. A man and his son picked us up and they were heading back to Leadville themselves. Once within cell phone range, we called Gavin and learned that he had just finished his own hike. He was to meet us back in Leadville.
Gavin had left us that morning and drove to Mt. Huron. His hike was to be a couple of miles shorter than ours and his target summit was at 14,003 ft. Because of his later start, the rain that hit us on our way down from our summit, hit him on his way up. He made the decision to cut his climb short due to the worsening weather.
Mike and I were exhausted but excited. 14, 433 feet! No matter the difficulty or ease of the trail, getting up to that height on foot, especially when I live at around 950 feet, was no small feat. I was already looking forward to day number two and our second 14’er attempt of the weekend.
Day Two: Mt. Massive, June 21, 2009
It rained all night and it was still sprinkling in the morning. The alarm clock went off at 4:00am. We were hoping to be on the trail by 5:00am. As we met up in the parking lot, we learned that Gavin was not feeling well and that he wasn’t going to join us. Even feeling crappy, he was a trooper and gave us a ride to the trailhead.
The way to the Halfmoon Mt Massive trailhead (10,400 ft.) is reached by much the same route as the Mt. Elbert North Trailhead except you add on another 2.5 miles of some of the ruttiest forest road in Colorado. I am not normally a Hummer advocate, but it would prove to be a very useful vehicle to get through this road. Finally at the trailhead, we said our goodbyes to Gavin, gathered our things and began our hike in the sprinkling rain.
We came upon a sign where the trail split and we took the trail to the right, where from this point on, it would begin to climb considerably. We passed a section of rugged rocks where it was obvious a crew of volunteers in the past must have worked their asses off laying down rocks as steps. Once pass this first rocky section, we continued up the trail along mossy and grassy terrain. We hit a few switchbacks and slowly came closer and closer to the first patches of snow. Below us, we could see a couple of hikers steadily gaining on us. Looking up, we couldn’t see the summit, but we could see that there was plenty of snow and a long way yet to go.
At some point, we lost the trail. Most likely it wound under some snow patch and we just couldn’t follow it. Plus there were no tracks to follow from hikers ahead of us. We decided to go up a slope that seemed as the most obvious route to where we needed to be. This is when the hikers behind us caught up with us. They were a couple of guys from Ft. Collins that were making a second attempt at summiting Mt. Massive. After chatting with them for a bit, they took the lead and quickly widen a gap.
Monday, June 1, 2009
After the Country Music Marathon last month, I was very happy to get off the asphalt and back on the trails. My running in May was a matter of recovering from the road race and gladly getting the feel of the trail under my feet again. My friends, Woody and Roxanne, and I came out to Sweetwater Creek Park a couple of weekends before the 50K to get 18 miles or so in and get a preview of the course. The weekend before the 50K, Woody and I went up to Amicalola Falls and ran the AT approach trail to Springer Mountain, ran a little extra credit on the Benton McKaye trail and covered about 20 miles. I felt pretty ready for the 50K and I knew I would enjoy it much more than the road marathon.
Race day morning would start with my alarm clock going off at 5:00 am. I got dressed, grabbed a quick breakfast and my things and headed out the door. While I was on my way to the race, I thought of a friend, Tony, who was supposed to have started running from his house at 2 am to the start for a 28 or so mile warm up. Turns out, he made it and not only that, he managed to complete the 50K in a little over 8 hours (he da man!) Anyways, I arrived at the park and picked up my bib number. The fun thing about a local race is all the friendly and familiar faces. I ran into fellow blogger, David Ray, which if you haven’t checked his blog out, go to http://seedadrunrundadrun.blogspot.com/. There was some excitement about ultra-legend, Dave Horton, participating in the race. I missed his talk the night before at the pasta dinner, but I did get to say “Hello” to him as everyone began to line up for the start.
After a few last minute announcements by Johnny, the race director, we were off! Thankfully, most of the first couple miles were on the road, this helped thin the crowd out a bit before we entered the first trail. Not long after being on the trail, we hit the first obstacle of the race, a concrete lake drain that was pretty slippery and more than one almost ended up on their butt. This was also the first time of many that our shoes would be soaked. Then came a significantly rocky section where everyone first slowed to a walk. It was going to be a long day.
We ended up back on pavement for a short while as we somehow ran back by the start of the race. After about 30-40 minutes of racing we would get back on the trails for good. Sweetwater Creek Park has sections of trail that are significantly technical. We came up the “blue” trail, down a set of wooden steps and past some waterfalls to run along the park’s “white trail”. The roots and rocks in this section make it for cautious progress, but I was feeling pretty good. I knew that one of the tougher sections of the course was coming up, the dreaded “Top of the World”.
Just beyond the boundary of the park exist trails that are on private property and that connect with a section of power lines that test a runner’s mettle every time. We hit these trails by following and crossing a small creek and going up the first of several serious climbs on the course, straight up to a ridge, over rocks and a fallen tree. Once on the ridge, you go back down and then back up several more climbs. The last climb in this series rewards the runners with an aid station, but not without passing a spray painted message on the climb that read, “Think what the 2nd time will be like.” Premonition words. Another climb from here and you come into an opening that provides you with a view that goes around for miles. We were on “Top of the World”. There someone has somehow placed a little swinging double chair to enjoy the view.
Then you hit the power line hills. Ugh! Out in the open, the beautiful sunny and blue skies were not pleasant. And the up and down of the power line hills shred the quads and do a number on the toes. But with a grin and a little determination, you get through it.
Soon, we were back inside the park trails and headed up the ‘white” trail towards the “yellow” trail loop. As you arrive, an aid station awaits to top off on fluids and get a PB&J and some Coke. Gotta love trail race aid stations! Across a metal bridge, the “yellow” trail loop has a doozy of a climb. As we came back down towards the metal bridge, we would run left and away from it on a forest service road that would take us to another smaller power line section, again outside the park. Once over this, we would hit a steep downhill that was on barely traveled trails. In fact, the closer we got to the bottom, the less of a trail that you could see. It might be why as I type this, I have poison ivy spots all over my shins. Once at the bottom, we arrived at the river crossing.
The river was up dramatically due to all the recent rain, and the current was moving too. The crossing is rope assisted, but for safety, race organizers asked all runners to cross the river one at a time. So we all got bottle necked here. Luckily, every one had a sense of humor about it and patiently waited their turn. After about ten minutes, it was mine. I grabbed the rope with both hands and made my way across. Halfway across, it wasn’t too bad. It was the second half that would prove a bit tricky as the water got deeper and the current a bit stronger. Once out of the water, the difficulty was the steep climb back up to the trail.
Once on the trail, my friend Kelli was there to cheer some friends and she got a few pics of me coming up the trail. It was good to see her and get some encouraging words as I went by.
It wasn’t long before we were running down the “blue” trail again and came out into an area where some of the runner’s cars were parked including mine. I unloaded my running pack and hydration bladder at my car and got back on the trail with just my water bottle. At this point, there was only 10 miles or so left. Next up, round two of the power line hills.
We came down a long descent to arrive at an aid station. The guys at this aid station get major kudos because they had everything: sports drink, water, plenty of food and ice. The only way to get all the stuff there was down about a half mile length of trail and up/down 200 ft. or so elevation. All of the materials had to be carried on foot. And they did it all with a smile. I made sure I thanked these guys for their efforts.
From here, you cross a short wooden bridge and then down the same trail as before to the power line sections. We hit much of the same hills as in the earlier portion of the race. Except this time, the heat had turned it up a notch and the sun beat down on you hard. Needless to say, the climbs were that much more difficult this time. Remember the spray painted words earlier? They were still there. Funny guy, whoever left that message.
Another friend of mine, Kelly, was running her first 50K. I would see her at points along this section as she wasn’t too far behind me. She later explained to me that there was a point where she thought she was a bit lost since she didn’t have anyone in front of her as a reference and she was shouting for some help. I had heard the shouts, but couldn’t make them out and didn’t know their intention. Luckily, she found her way.
So after some grueling climbing and descending, we were finally on the home stretch. I refueled at the aid station at mile 27; I figured I was home free from any more climbs. I was soon to learn how wrong I was. Cruising along the creek trail and heading back towards the waterfalls we saw earlier in the race, I saw that the race markers seem to go sharply to the left. This was to be the big surprise of the race and the cruelest climb of them all. There was no trail, but the markers clearly went sharply up and up the hill. Remember, there’s 28 miles already on the legs. The only way up was by walking and grabbing onto small trees along the way. Once at the top, the course went right and flattened out. It took a moment to get the heart rate back down and catch my breath. My legs felt like jelly.
After a bit more bush-whacking, somehow you got dumped back out on the “blue” trail. It was a matter of placing one foot in front of the other for the last few miles. I passed the final aid station, calmly ate another PB&J and had some fluids. Just another mile and a half to go. I heard what I thought were fire crackers and I figured they were being fired by the race organizers as the runners arrived at the finish. I later learned that it was actually a local sheriff firing range. I’m glad I ran with a bright orange shirt on.
Finally, I could hear the murmur of the crowd hanging out at the finish, even though I couldn’t see it. The last couple hundred yards or so of the race follows a road and then you take some wooden steps off to the left and up a short hill climb. There’s the finish. Wow, another 50K in the bag. I did it in 6:13 and change. Not a bad day’s work, considering all the challenges. I was surprised by my wife, Stacy, who had decided to come out to the park and see me finish. It was a very appreciated surprise. I got a kiss from my wife, a finisher’s hat from the race and then a plate of BBQ pulled pork with some sides. Nice.
You gotta love trail races because everyone hangs out after they finish and cheer on remaining finishers. I love the camaraderie! I was there to greet Kelly as she finished. She had dealt with some cramps on the mean climb at mile 28 and she was happy to finish. I was proud of her and all of my friends that finished that day.
The first few months of 2009 has simply been one race or run adventure after another. The SweetH20 50K is my third 50K of the year. Funny enough and looking ahead, it may be my last one for a little while, as Stacy and I are expecting parents and it is yet to be seen how that will affect my race schedule. I have another adventure in June, traveling to Colorado to hike two 14’ers with another friend, Mike. I can’t wait. Until then, I’m going to run some trails this summer and try to get back on my bike too.
After two 50K's, a couple of ultra runs on the AT and tons of daily trail miles, it's time to retire my Cascadia 3's. Already have a new pair of Cascadia 4's to break in. Sweet!
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
I joined a local training program and soon enough, that two mile long run became four, then eight, then twelve…you get the idea. Next thing I know, I was in my start corral at the race. The gun went off and I have to say, that I haven’t stopped running since.
Fast forward to 2008, I heard about the 10th anniversary of the Country Music Marathon and I just had to sign up. Today, I am an experienced marathoner, ultrarunner and Ironman. Things have changed a lot for me in the last nine years and I figured that by running this year’s race, it would bring it all full circle for me.
My wife, Stacy, and I drove up to Nashville the day before the race. We checked in to the hotel, passed through the Expo and had dinner with friends at a great local eatery. Four-thirty in the morning came awful quick after a restless night of sleep. My things were laid out as usual. I had taken the time to pin my bib number the night before. The D-Tag timing device was securely fasten to my running shoe. I got dressed, grabbed my water bottle and kissed Stacy. Downstairs, the hotel was smart enough to provide an early breakfast for the marathoners. After a bite to eat, I headed out and made the mile or so walk to the stadium where shuttles were waiting to take runners to the start. My buddies Woody and Doug, who we met up with the night before for dinner, were planning on meeting me there to take the ride to the start together. With the crowds however, we totally missed each other. The shuttle ride wasn’t too bad, a bit crowded but we made it to the start rather quickly.
The race has grown considerably. The first year I think there were around 8,000 runners, all in the marathon. A couple of years later, the race added the half-marathon option and that’s how today there are over 31,000 runners. So, coming off the shuttle, all you could see was people everywhere. There’s something about these big production races that is becoming unattractive to me. I guess, I am getting used to trail races where there are only a few hundred runners or triathlons including the Ironman, where at the most there are 2,000 participants. So, I was feeling a bit claustrophobic.
I went to my corral hoping to still see Woody and Doug. The sun was making its way over the tops of the buildings and the temps were already starting to climb. It was going to be hot one! I managed to meet up with Woody and Doug and the race got started.
First couple of miles, I tried to keep up with those guys and I knew it was a bad idea when I saw the splits were about 7:30 pace. It wasn’t long before Woody and Doug dropped me. At mile 2, I spotted my wife in the crowd, gave her a quick wave and kept on. I slowed down to a more manageable 8:30 clip and kept repeating a mantra in my head, “Take it easy. Treat this as a long run. Don’t overheat.” The Country Music Marathon is known for its hills. The race organizers have revised the course several times over the years in an effort to lessen them, but there are still plenty of them on the route. Anyway, we ran through Music Row, the part of town where many of the record companies, recording studios and music publishers are based. You have to wonder just how many dreamers have come to this town with nothing but a guitar and never catch a break. Of course, every once in a while somebody makes it big.
Through mile 8, I was feeling fine, although I started to get concerned about the heat. This initial section is an out and back, so you can see the elites run by on the way out and then see the rest of us mortals on the way back into downtown. Somewhere in this section, I saw a guy in a full on bear mascot costume. I later learned that he finished the half marathon in about two hours. Unreal.
At mile 11, the half marathoners veer off the full marathon course. It was nice to have the crowd thin out some. At mile 13, my pace was maintaining, but I could tell it was not going to be my day. I have run this race four other times and this is the part of the course that I don’t enjoy. It’s all office park that is in a part of town difficult for friends and family to get in and cheer. No shade, no cheering crowds and plenty of black top. Even the greenway portion along the river was tough. The one positive was the trademark bands all along the route.
At mile 16 and after a quick pottie break, I knew I was decently hydrated and that was the good news. But things were starting to deteriorate and my pace was falling off. I walked up a lengthy hill around mile 18. Out of the office park area and down 8th Avenue, I got some pep back in my step. I had a laugh when I saw the back of some guy’s shirt that read, “My friends told me it was 2.62 miles.” Mile 19 sees the full and half marathon courses meet up again for about a mile, a long mile up a hill. From the top of the hill, you can see the stadium where the finish line is located.
I spotted Stacy again around mile 20 and stopped for a second. She had timed it just right and I appreciated the smile and kiss. Just a 10K to go. No problem, right?
Another out and back into Shelby Park awaited. I saw Woody on his way to the finish line when I was making my way into the park. I was surprised to see him, but I later learned that he didn’t have his best day either. After seeing Woody, my miles were getting longer and longer. I made it into the park and came across an aid stop giving out ice. I put some under my running cap and that definitely woke me up a little. Still, my pace was definitely not holding up.
The last two miles of the course is through an industrial part of town. I could see the stadium over the tops of the warehouses. As I got closer, I could hear the announcer. I was ready to get this one over. Came around a bend and I could see the crowds. Country Music Marathon has a final turn about 300 yards from the finish, so you can’t see the banner until after the turn. As I made the turn, I picked it up a bit. I heard my name from the crowd and once again spotted Stacy. Gave her a wave and stepped it up. I crossed the finish line at 4:14:41 by the clock, but 4:10:54 by my watch, a good 40 or so minutes slower than my normal marathon time but mission accomplished.
Another marathon under my belt and this one was well earned. I took full advantage of all the finish line goodies, especially the ice soaked sponges. Took the mandatory “medal picture” and I made my way thru the maze and came out to where Stacy was waiting for me. I was glad to be done.
Nine years after my first marathon, I have participated in dozens of races. As tough as this race was for me, I will always appreciate the fact that I started running. It has changed my life and running this race did indeed bring it full circle for me. However, I think I am going to take a break from road races for now. I have a trail 50K coming up at the end of May and I can’t wait.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Saturday, February 28th started at 5:30 am when Woody and I hit the road on our way to the Mt. Cheaha 50K race in Alabama. The race was scheduled to start at 7:30 am CST. The hour gained by the time zone changed allowed us to sleep in our beds in Atlanta, get up early and make the drive. The drive wasn’t too bad until we crossed the stateline and the rain started. It was raining buckets! Once off the interstate, it took us a bit longer than expected to arrive at Mount Cheaha State Park. The plan was to catch the bus to the start and the bus was scheduled for 6:05 am. It was about 6:00 am when we arrived and parked the car.
Woody and I walked into Bald Rock Lodge thinking that we were late and about to be rushed onto the waiting buses, but we found all the runners just patiently hanging out and chatting amongst each other. Turns out the buses were down the hill stuck in some mud and it would be a while before they would make their way up to the lodge. Meanwhile, the rain continued outside. All the rain was going to swell the various creeks and rivers along the race route, but more on that later.
Todd, the race director, was doing his best to appear calm and was handling the delay well. The runners in the lodge were patiently waiting as the clock was ticking on by and the buses were still not arriving. Woody and I were able to kill some time by meeting and talking to some of the other runners. One of them being an experienced ultra-runner named Rich. Turns out, Rich was the originator of a legendary race back home called the Battle of Atlanta. This urban ultra consisted of meeting at the top of Stone Mountain at sunrise, touching the geological marker and making your way across Atlanta and northwest to Kennesaw to the top of Kennesaw Mountain. It was a low-key race of 30+ miles that demanded runners to be self-sufficient. Rich had organized the race during the 90’s with the last one back in 2003. As he put it, it just became too much work. Anyway, Rich made a comment that would end up being prophetic later in the day. He said that his experience in ultra-racing allowed him to catch less experienced runners every time and he would prove this to be so.
It was finally announced that the buses were making their way up the hill to the lodge. Everybody topped off their water bottles, made one last trip to the bathroom and headed out side. The two school buses pulled around and we all piled in. The ride to the start was rather uneventful with everyone just checking their things and encouraging each other. The rain had stopped and the sun even peaked out through the clouds. A bit later, we arrived at the start, a spot off of highway 77 where the Pinhoti trail intersected. Sweet, we were finally going to get the show on the road (or I should say, trail.)
From here, the course takes us on the Pinhoti Trail, the Skyway Trail, Chinobee Trail and a couple of forest roads. The race ends at the top of Mt. Cheaha back at the lodge. Along the way, we could expect several ridge climbs, creeks, one rope assisted river crossing, waterfalls, rocky trails and around mile 28, a hellacious climb called Blue Hill, or as some call it, Blue Hell.
Music was blaring from someone’s SUV as we all lined-up under the start banner. Todd got on the mic with a few last minute instructions. The race started and we were on our way. Immediately, we were squeezed into single track trail and at first it was difficult to gain positions. Eventually, things would begin to spread out and everyone would find their spot along the course. The first few miles to the first aid station took us through leaf and pine needle covered trails soaked with several puddles from the night’s rain. At first, we would all try to avoid the water but it was soon evident that this was a futile effort. There is a significant climb in this first section and this helped to spread the crowd out even more. Soon enough, we were at the first aid station.
Woody and I were sticking together and we were both feeling pretty good at this point. The aid station was set up on a forest service road right before a train crossing. We made it through the aid station without much of a delay and quickly made our way up the road and back on the trail. Apparently, a train came through after we had passed and delayed some of the other runners.
Once back on the trail, we made our way up a series of climbs. Turns out Rich had been in front of us and we made our way passed him with a wave and a pat on the back. He just smiled and gave us a nod as we went by.
The trail made its way up a climb and dumped out onto a forest road. We ran along the forest road for several miles. The rain had created ruts of mud and we made our way around them. We passed some other runners and it seemed that all was going well. Personally, I wasn’t feeling the climbs and I was looking forward to the creek crossings. However, we would soon learn that the previous night’s rain had swelled the creeks considerably.
We made it into aid station #2, loaded up on some PB&J’s, refilled water bottles and headed up the hill. We were now back on the Pinhoti trail and making our way up onto a ridge. At the top, we were rewarded with a fantastic view even though visibility wasn’t at its best. The trail was pretty rocky on the ridge and we had to watch our footing. Still, we made good progress and for a little while at least, it seemed that Woody and I were the only two runners on the trail. The trail crossed a forest service road several times and as we made our way off the ridge. We would soon arrive at aid station #3 at Adams Gap.
To get to the aid station, we had to run a short segment off the trail where the runners ahead of us were coming at us. We saw the first female and she was looking strong. Needless to say, we would not see her again. I shoved some roasted, salted potatoes in my mouth, took a few swigs of Accelerade and headed back out. We would soon split off the Pinhoti and get on the Skyway trail.
I took the lead for the next few miles and this is where I started to feel less than 100%. We had picked up another runner and we made our way along the trail like a little convoy. I could tell that I was holding up Woody, but he was letting me stay in the lead as we wound our way along another ridge and more rocky trail. We pulled into aid station #4 around mile 18 and I couldn’t be happier. As I was refueling and trying to get my strength back, Woody was itching to get moving. The guys at the station warned us of the coming creek crossings.
Back on the trail, this time Woody was in front. The gap between us started to grow and it wasn’t long before he was well ahead of me and out of sight. The other guy we had picked up in the last section would end up leaving me too. I was on my own for the rest of the race.
I came upon a couple of creeks and sure enough, because of all the rain, the water was more than knee deep. My shoes got soaked but my Smartwool socks were holding up just fine. The cold water actually felt good too. After a couple more climbs, I made it down a hill and I could here rushing water. Soon enough I was at the bank of a river. Normally, the river is rather tame and barely deep enough to get your knee caps wet. But today, it was to prove a tricky crossing even with the assistance of a rope. I clipped my water bottle and grabbed the rope. I was halfway across when I slipped and went in chest deep. The water gave me a rush of adrenaline and I quickly came back to my feet and finished getting across. A photographer was on the other bank and would capture the moment. Once across, it was a short jog along the bank to the next aid station.
After 22 miles, you appreciate a smiling face and encouraging words and that’s what the folks waiting at the aid station offered. Appreciative of this, I refueled once again and wondered how far ahead was Woody, even though I wouldn’t see him again until the finish. At this point, several of us were hurting. Some of the runners I had passed earlier were now catching and passing me, while I was passing others. I would soon catch up to a friend, John, who was having some issues with cramps. I was surprised to see him as John is an experienced ultra-runner but the cramps were really giving him a hard time. While we rubber band each other several times, we passed some spectacular water falls. Another fellow Georgia runner, Reagan, passed us both and she would end up being the second place female.
The trail ends up on another forest road and this was a less scenic part of the course with a long straight away and a slight ascent. I could see Reagan in front of me by a couple hundred yards, but I would never catch her. John ended up catching up to me once again and we ran together for a few miles while the course went from packed dirt road to an asphalt road. We were on the asphalt for a short while and we came into a park where the next aid station was waiting for us at mile 28. I knew that Blue Hill was next and I was anticipating a tough climb. I would underestimate the difficulty. More roasted salted potatoes, a Coke and I thought I was a new man. John tried to stay with me as we left the aid station but as soon as the climb began, he would get ahead. I guess his cramps weren’t that bad after all.
Whatever description I make of the climb up Blue Hill, it will not do it justice. There was no running at this point. Just grab tree limbs, place your hands on your knees and climb up a wall of rocks. That’s the best I can describe it. After almost 29 miles, putting this climb at this point of the course is just plain evil. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I finally made up to the top in what felt like an eternity. The final miles were no where as difficult but the climb took it out of me for sure.
At the top there is about a half mile of asphalt and then we get back on trail and a short climb. Some where along this point I heard a runner coming up behind me while I could hear the music of the finish line ahead of me, it was Rich. Damn it, if he didn’t catch me right at the end. I moved aside as he went by with a smile on his face. I gritted my teeth and made my way up the trail then road to the finish line. Todd, the race director, was waiting under the finish banner and congratulating all the finishers. Some one handed me a cool technical shirt with the race logo and the word “Finisher” on it. How cool is that!?
I went inside the lodge, grabbed some pizza and found Woody. He ended up putting over a half hour between us. I guess I paced him pretty well for the first half of the race. We hung out for a while, refreshed and changed into drier clothes. Everyone was tired but content with the accomplishment. Mount Cheaha was conquered!
So there it is…my second 50K of 2009. Next up, the Country Music Marathon in Nashville in late April and then the SweetH20 50K at the end of May.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
The idea sprouted from Woody's head back in October. It blossomed when he shared it with me and Doug to run the entire section of the Appalachian Trail that resides in Georgia. The full 2,100+ mile trek formally begins at Springer Mountain in Georgia and ends at Mt. Khatadin in Maine. The Georgia portion is only 76 miles. 76 miles that undulates between 2,500 feet at its lowest point to almost 4,500 feet at its highest. Southbound would be the chosen direction for the run, as it would be the "easier" direction. Close to 28,000 feet of climbing and a bit more of the same in downhills. That’s almost up and back down on Mt. Everest. Daunting.
Doug, Woody, another buddy, Andrew, and I first attempted the run back in January. The original plan included a night stay in a rented cabin and dividing the run in two sections. We were to start at Blue Ridge Gap which is just 3 miles from the NC/GA stateline and the last spot in Georgia where the trail meets a forest road only accessible by car. The plan was to run North, hit the stateline and then make our way South to Springer Mountain. The whole route would total about 80 miles. We had everything figured out: drop bags, pacers to come up on Saturday to help run on Sunday, overnight stay, food and water but ultimately, we weren't prepared for the weather. It all went as planned for most of the first day until we passed Chattahoochee Gap. Night settled in and a snow storm began to drop a few inches. May not sound like much, but those few inches, combined with very cold temperatures, put the kabash on the run. We made it 44 miles and arrived at Hogpen Gap, where we had to call our friends, Jon and Lane, who were at the cabin waiting to pace us the next day to come get us. Running in the cold is OK, but when your feet are wet and then frozen, it's no fun. So we had to postpone the idea for another day. That day would come again in mid-March.
It wasn't long before we had a new date and a new plan. Saturday, March 14th and Sunday, March 15th became the target weekend for the run. This time we would try running through the night and have a crew follow us along the way. We would start at Deep Gap in North Carolina, once again run southbound and end the run at Springer Mountain, whole journey totaling just over 83 miles. We designated nine aid stops along the way.
The original running line-up changed slightly when Andrew decided he would come up late on Saturday to run with us from Hogpen Gap. In his place, our buddy Jon filled his spot. My wife, Stacy, and several others signed up to crew with a few of them planning to pace us during sections.
Deep Gap, NC (4,600 ft) to Blue Ridge Gap, GA (3,020 ft) - 9.9 miles
We chose Deep Gap because it could be reached by a forest service road and it was the first point we could enter the trail on the NC side. We learned the week before the run that the forest service road is closed from mid-October to mid-March. Woody called the park rangers in NC and confirmed that the road would be opened on Monday after our run...bummer. We left Atlanta at 6:45am, a bit later than we intended. The plan was to try to be on the trail by 9:30am hoping the gate on the forest service road would be close to the trail. When we arrived, we found the gate is about a mile in off US 64, but five miles from the AT. This meant Springer Mountain would now be about 88 miles away. Two men in another vehicle pulled up about the same time. They were locals helping emergency units respond to a call from a hiker on the trail needing rescue due to a blood sugar problem. Clay county EMS and park rangers were already up on the trail looking for him. Although concerned for the hiker, we were excited as our journey was about to begin. Stacy dropped us off and we were on our way.
A note on the weather, we knew that the weekend called for cooler temperatures and a bit of rain. The bit of rain would be more than that by the end of the day, but more on that later. When we started our run, it was cloudy with a misty drizzle and temperatures in the 40's.
We passed the gate and hit the forest road. It was very soft and somewhat muddy due to the weather. We could see the tracks from the rescue vehicles. The forest road started to climb almost immediately. About 45 minutes in we were amazed to see an ambulance. There was a park ranger near by and he told us they had to use a wench three times just to get it to this point. We kept going and finally came to the point where the forest road ended. There was a pick up truck there with no one inside and with several decals proving the owner was a fireman. We didn't see any white blazes indicating the AT but we had to choose from three trails, two with blue diamond blazes and one unmarked. We weren't sure which one to choose and apparently missed this in our hiking guide books. We tried the unmarked trail first and after about five minutes down the trail realized that it was a dead end. Then we tried one of the blue blazed trails and ran down it for almost 10 minutes. No AT to be found down this trail, so we turned around again. Finally, we went up the only choice we had left and just a few yards up the hill was the AT. A welcomed site as we probably tacked on about 2 miles plus the five coming up to this point. Anyway, we were finally on the AT. Next stop Blue Ridge Gap.
A couple miles down the trail, an ATV was coming towards us. We figured it must be part of the rescue team and sure enough, the driver of the ATV was carrying a passenger, the affected hiker. He stoped as we let them by, and asked where we were heading. We told him we were heading south and he looked at us oddly and asked, "Where are your packs?" We didn't tell him we were running it and just mentioned that we had a ride waiting for us past the stateline. After some encouragement to the hiker, we moved on, hoping that we wouldn't have to experience something similar first-hand. We came across another ATV and several members of the rescue team a mile or so later. Once past them, we didn't see anyone for a while.
Things were going as planned and everyone was feeling good. Because of the mist, visibility was poor off the ridge. We couldn't see what would normally be fantastic views. However, we were in good spirits and quickly closing in on the stateline. Right before Bly Gap (3,840 ft), we stopped at this bizarre shaped tree, took some photos, Woody posted to Twitter from his phone and we carried on. Soon afterwards, we came to the part of the trail where a sign says, "NC/GA". This meant a couple more photos. I received a call from Stacy and learned that she had met up with another friend, Nancy, as planned and they were now waiting for us at Blue Ridge Gap, just three or so miles from where we now were. Most of the trail from here is down hill so we were making good time. The first of many thru-hikers were appearing on the trail. Many AT thru-hikers begin their journey from Georgia to Maine in March to beat the hot summer months. It was strange to think that what these hikers were covering heading northbound in their first week, we were attempting to cover heading southbound in less than two days.
After passing a few more thru-hikers, we came across a bizarre little "greeter" someone had placed off the trail. It was a stuffed animal wearing a hard hat with a sign, "Boo-boo wishes y’all Good Luck thru-hike". We got a good chuckle from it and had to take a few pics. Shortly after, we came down the hill and into another forest road crossing, Blue Ridge Gap. Stacy and Nancy were waiting for us with coffee and munchies, a welcomed sight! Another vehicle was there helping some thru-hikers, a young girl and two guys, father-son duo from Maine. First section and 17 miles in the bag.
Blue Ridge Gap (3,020 ft) to Dicks Creek Gap (2,675 ft) - 5.8 miles
Coming out of Blue Ridge Gap is a bit of a climb but once over the ridge and across Plum Orchard Gap (3,100 ft), a long and steady drop begins on the way to Dicks Creek Gap, the second lowest point on the Georgia AT. This section is short and we knew we would see our crew soon. So we took it easy, hiked the climbs and ran the downhills. We made good time and almost surprised our crew. They had just set up a tarp and had begun boiling water for soup on a camping stove. The soup was incredibly revitalizing. The morning drizzle and mist was starting to sink in and the soup warmed us up. Thru-hikers had also arrived and were resting before tackling the hill we just came down. Someone had left a case of Coke and beer off the road and the thru-hikers were helping themselves.
Doug had begun to have stomach troubles before arriving at Dicks Creek. He thought that eating something would settle it, but it was to be a lingering issue for him down the trail. Once fed, we grabbed our gear and helped Stacy and Nancy put a few things back in the cars. It was time to cross US 76 to continue our journey. Second section complete and 23 miles behind us.
Dicks Creek Gap (2,675 ft) to Tray Gap (3,841 ft) - 12.2 miles
The next 12 or so miles are some of the toughest on the trail. The biggest challenge on this section is Tray Mountain (4,430 ft.). But before we hit that evil climb, we would have some work to do. The trail out of Dicks Creek Gap immediately begins an ascent up to Powell Mountain (3,840 ft), a climb of over 1,100 feet in just a few miles. Needless to say, it was slow going and not much running at this point. Once over the top, the trail eases up a little as we made our way into Deep Gap (3,350 ft). The weather was still a bit misty and overhead it was cloudy, but it would end up being the best weather of the day. We took turns at the front and made decent progress, considering the climbing involved. There were two more significant climbs before we finally made it through Addis Gap (3,300 ft) about 5.5 miles after our last aid stop. From here, the trail feels like a roller coaster, going up and down between 3,600 and 3,800 ft. As we were nearing the climb to Tray Mountain (4,430 ft), Doug let us know that he most likely was not going to continue. He was not comfortable with his stomach issues and on top of that, he was beginning to have trouble with stiffness in his legs. The rest of us were saddened by this decision and we hoped that when we arrived at the next stop, he would recharge his batteries and continue with us.
The climb up Tray Mountain is not a steep one, as the trail makes a series of large step climbs along the ridge to this point. However, we had already been on the trail for 30+ miles and at this point, any incline was tough. We reached the summit of Tray Mountain and did not stick around except for a photo or two. Unfortunately, the view at the top was nonexistent due to the clouds and mist. We regrouped and began our descent, knowing that in just a couple miles down the hill, our crew was waiting for us at Tray Gap.
When we came off the trail into the open at Tray Gap, there was no one there. All kinds of thoughts flooded my brain, I was wondering if I had given Stacy wrong directions, or worse, if something happened to her and Nancy. To make matters worse, I could not get any signal from my cell phone.
We knew the trail hit the same forest road just another mile down the trail. Perhaps, they would be down there. To our relief, this was the case. Once again, soup, coffee and smiles from Stacy and Nancy to make us feel like we hadn’t just covered 35 miles. Doug didn’t change his mind and at this point, he decided to pull off the trail. After a change into dry clothes, Woody, Jon and I headed off to tackle one of the tougher challenges on the trail, Rocky Mountain (4,017 ft).
Tray Gap (3,841 ft) to Unicoi Gap (2,949 ft) - 4.4 miles
Leaving Doug behind with the crew, we hit the trail and soon came across Indian Graves Gap (3,120 ft). This meant the start up Rocky Mountain. The climb is not particularly long, but it is steep with footing being an issue. There’s plenty of bald granite and the rain made it slippery. We were glad to make it to the top and had a long descent in front of us. The sun was beginning to settle and we knew that by the time we made it down and into Unicoi, it would be dark. It was time to turn on the headlamps. We ran down without much issue except for our eyes adjusting to the lights. Coming into Unicoi Gap, we actually beat our crew there, although they soon arrived. At this point, we had logged close to 40 miles.
We helped the crew set up and enjoyed some munchies and more soup. If you’ve never tasted a real Coke after 40 miles, you are missing out. It hits the spot. At this point, the temperature was beginning to drop. The drizzle would soon turn into rain and our adventure would take on a more somber tone. We put our packs back on, crossed US 17/75 and got back on the trail.
Unicoi Gap (2,949 ft) to Hogpen Gap (3,480 ft) - 13.8 miles
Blue Mountain tops off at 4,020 ft. The trail coming out of Unicoi Gap begins ascending to Blue Mountain almost immediately. This section of the trail is very rocky and with the rain and darkness, it was to be very slow moving on this section. Woody was having some trouble with a stiff knee and he tried to loosen it up. Jon and I were feeling OK, although our wet clothes and the cold temperatures were definitely having on effect on us. We finally made it over the top of Blue Mountain, but there were more rocky sections to get through. At one point, I was leading, Woody was in the middle and Jon was trailing. We were probably about 20 yards apart from each other, when all of a sudden we heard a terrible scream. I turned around and saw Woody’s headlamp disappear in the other direction. We could barely see Jon’s headlamp and he continued to scream in pain. Woody and I made our way back to him. Jon was complaining about his knee; it seems that he fell on the rocks and banged it pretty good. Woody and I feared the worst and thoughts of carrying Jon out were going through our heads. Luckily, his knee was sore but he could walk and eventually still run on it. We had a good scare though.
I knew if we could get to Chattahoochee Gap (3,520 ft), that we would soon have a long, steady downhill where we could get some good running in and make up some time. We passed the gap with no further incident and went up a short climb. Soon we were on the downhill which was the point back in January where we began to have trouble with the snow. This time instead of snow, it was rain. It wouldn’t stop and it seeped in to our clothes. It also became very cold. The rain was affecting all of us, but it was taking its toll particularly on Jon. Jon has blood circulation issues due to his diabetes and he was losing feeling in his fingers. Also, we were running out of water because of the slow progress going up Blue Mountain. We crossed Low Gap (3,032 ft) and had another 4 miles to go until Hogpen Gap where Stacy and some fresh troops were waiting for us. Earlier in the week, I had asked these guys to bring a sack of cheeseburgers for when they met us at this stop. All I could think about were those cheeseburgers. Meanwhile, Jon’s condition was getting worse. We did not run much on these last few miles to Hogpen Gap. We were marching along in somewhat of a down mood. Suddenly, we saw two headlamps coming our way. Two of our friends, Luis and Roxanne, had decided to venture up the trail to come towards us. Talk about lifting your spirits! They were a blast of renewed energy and we finished the last mile or so with their help. As we made our way off the trail, we could see several sets of headlights and our friends, Luis, Anna, Roxanne, Andrew and Stacy, welcoming us. It was good to see them! We were freezing and immediately got into cars with coffee and hot chicken broth. 54 miles traveled so far on our tired, wet, frozen feet at this point.
Jon was done, although he eventually ended up being OK once he got some hot food in him and dry clothes on. Woody and I were coming back to life and began to prepare to hit the trail once again. I was excited because we would have fresh legs join us. Andrew, who had run with us back in January, and Roxanne, an experienced ultra-runner, were going to help us from here on out. I downed two cheeseburgers with my broth and changed into a new set of dry clothes. It was still raining outside, but I was feeling better and ready to go. I jumped out of the car with Andrew and saw that Roxanne and Woody were also ready. We had to head down a bit on the road before finding the trail.
Hogpen Gap (3,480 ft) to Neel’s Gap (3,125 ft) - 6.4 miles
Getting out of the cars, brought me right out into the wind and all that cold hit me like a ton of bricks. I had three violent shiver spasms, but I kept moving. Woody was having the same problem plus his hip flexor was bothering him. He decided to go back to the car. While Andrew went to check on him, I followed Roxanne. Roxanne and I struggled to find the trail for a second, but once Andrew was back, he guided us up the right way. We learned from Andrew that Woody was going to sit this section out and see about joining us at the next stop. That left me to complete the journey. Even though I had Roxanne and Andrew with me, I have to admit that it did affect me some to not have my adventure partners on the trail with me. I shrugged it off and just stayed focused on following Roxanne. Andrew brought up the rear. On the trail, the cold wasn’t bothering me as much and I was able to get into a comfortable pace.
The rain was a factor for sure. The trail was full of water and it seemed that we were running through a creek. Due to the wet conditions, my feet were getting waterlogged. We hit two big climbs on this section Wildcat Mountain (3,730 ft) and Cowrock Mountain (3,852 ft). This second one was unbelievably steep and I had a hard time getting up it. Once over the top, we began a long downhill into Neel’s Gap. Roxanne and Andrew were incredible. They kept me going with encouragement and jokes. I really needed it. This down slope seemed to go on forever and I thought we would never get to Neel’s Gap and the rest of our team. Andrew pointed out some lights in the distance and said we were almost there. At Neel’s Gap, the famous hostel/outdoor gear store, Walasi-yi, sits right on the trail. I knew that once I was on its stone paved path that I would be back in the warmth of a car with soup in my hand. The rain was still pouring down and when we finally arrived at the store; our crew was all either asleep or trying to stay dry and warm in the cars. I got into a car and tried to warm up. Andrew got in the same car and Jon was in the front seat. I took off my socks and shoes and saw that my feet were swollen and waterlogged for sure. I was feeling the 60 miles I had run and hiked all day. Andrew asked me if I was planning on continuing and told me he would join me if I did . I wasn’t sure. My feet were not in such good shape. I knew that we had the toughest climb of the day yet to come, Blood Mountain (4,458 ft), the tallest point on the AT in Georgia. I thought about Doug, Woody and Jon and wished we were all doing it together. I thought about our crew toughing it out and supporting us at the next few stops, the last 20 miles of it on muddy, very wet forest service roads. I thought about my wife, Stacy, who had been such a trooper crewing all day and into the night. I thought about the almost 30 miles still to go to Springer Mountain. Finally, I looked at Andrew and told him I was stopping here.
It was five o’clock in the morning. I had conquered 60 miles of the trail, Jon and Woody 54 miles and Doug 35 miles. We had given it a hell of a try. Even though we did not finish what we set out to do, I still had a great time with good friends. I wrote earlier that completing the trail along with its elevation changes would be climbing and descending Mt. Everest (bare with me, I know it’s not quite the same). The point is Sir Edmund Hillary didn’t reach the top of Everest on his first try either. We just need to regroup and one day we will enter the trail again in North Carolina and end up at the top of Springer Mountain without doubt. Just need some kind help from the trail weather gods.
My gratitude to Luis, Anna and Nancy for being crew extraordinaire. To Roxanne for pacing. To Andrew also for pacing and for being a part of the adventure from the very beginning. To my wife, Stacy, for putting up with this crazy idea, crewing all day and night and supporting me. And to Jon, Woody and Doug, you guys rock! Cheers and happy trails!