Five 10K loops. Sounds easy enough, right? Now throw in 950 feet of vertical climb on each loop. Well, now its getting somewhere. And if that wasn't enough, throw in a pumpkin on the fourth loop and you have yourself one interesting race. But wait, it gets better, hold the race on Halloween, make sure there's rain, fog, mud and wet leaves on bald granite and now there's a helluva race!
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: