I realize the event in this blog entry is out of order chronologically. However, since I have been slacking in contributing to my new blog and the event was just a little over a month ago, I decided to go ahead and write a race report…
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.