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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Running in the Cohuttas: Double Top 100K 3.3.12

Up the forest road to the top of Potatopatch Mountain at around mile 22 and about 2,500 feet with the Cohutta range behind me.
This past weekend, I ran the inaugural Double Top 100K in the Cohutta Mountains in North Georgia. It was a memorable weekend with a race that had amazing scenic views, perfect weather and great camarederie. As a first time race, it had its hiccups too.

Rox, me and Kelly before the start of the race.
Dodging the storm

The forecast for the race, an out and back course that follows the Pinhoti Trail and a few forest roads, was totally up in the air for days. We were having unseasonably warm weather in Georgia for this time a year, but a cold front was moving in and meteorologists couldn't agree on how exactly it would play out. At one point, it was supposed to rain all weekend, but as race weekend got closer, the media was prognosticating doomsday and in some parts of Tennessee and Georgia, it kind of was just that. I drove up to Fort Mountain State Park, the site of the start, on Friday and didn't run into any bad weather at all. Meanwhile, Chattanooga, just a few miles north, was getting pounded by hail and tornadoes. South of us, a big storm system pushed through the northern suburbs of Atlanta sending people into their homes to hide in their bathrooms. Somehow, we managed to only get a few inches of rain and some strong winds. The 100 milers were set to start at 4:30am and from what I was told, they had a bit of rain to start. Us 100K participants started at 7:00am and the rain clouds were long gone along with the storm to the north and south of us. It was to be partly sunny skies and temps in the high fifties for us. Basically, perfect weather. We dodged it alright. My friends and cabin mates, Rox and Kelly, and I rolled out of bed around 6:00am to the start. Rox had the foresight to reserve a cabin months ago and it was just about a quarter mile from the start and finish. A luxury that we enjoyed indeed.

Running with the pack

After a few minutes catching up with fellow runners, a little over thirty of us lined up for the start. Perry, the RD, made a few short announcements and with out much fanfare, we were off. We stayed on asphalt for a little over a mile before getting on one of the mountain bike trails in the park. Rox was gone with the leaders, leaving me and Kelly to find our groove in the pack. Within the first couple of miles, we would be joined by Bret from Virginia and Bailey from Alabama, and we would soon pick up Larry from Pennsylvannia (turns out many of the race participants were from out of state). The five of us ran about 15 miles of the first 20 miles together. When we came out of the park, we headed down the Pinhotti Connector to the first aid station. This trail is not well traveled and I found myself instinctively removing branches and other obstacles out of the way. I kept thinking that I had to climb up this trail in the dark later that night and I wanted to make that return as easy as possible. There's nothing easy about that trail, but more on that later. Kelly, Bailey and I made it to the first aid station pretty quickly. Not much need to fuel up this early in the race, but I forced myself to get something to drink and munched on a couple of pretzels. By the end of the day, I would end up proud of my nutrition and hydration as I did a good job with both through out the day and it would lead to my having a good day on the trails.
Creek crossing. One of many early on.

After the first aid station, we kept going down until it leveled off at the lowest point of the race for a few miles and about five or six creek crossings. When I ran through here weeks earlier, the creeks weren't much of a concern at all, but with all the rain I was worried that we would have quite the difficult time dealing with them. When actually they were fine. The worst one was maybe shin deep as you can see from the picture I took of other runners. I had taken care that morning to cover my feet in Bodyglide and I wore my Smartwool socks that have never let me down. I would end the race with absolutely no blisters or hot spots, despite running through creeks this early on in the race and towards the end on the return.

From there, the five us hit the first real climb of the day, up this single track trail and onto a forest road heading North. This portion of the route is on Tatum Mountain. We ran down a bit until we found a gate with the race markers that we obviously had to go around and continue on the forest road. This was the gate we missed weeks ago when on the practice run and I was on the look out for it. The five of us were still together with Kelly and Bailey a few yards ahead. We were trotting along when I noticed a single track trail that splintered off to the left with race ribbons marking it, but that was missed by Kelly and Bailey. We called out to them until they finally turned around and came back. We later learned that this same scenario would play out for many of the runners through out the day and at various points on the course. The trail led down to Georgia highway 52 and we ran east on that for about a half mile, the only stretch of asphalt we would be on besides the start, until we hit aid station #2 at the Cohutta Overlook. 11 miles seemed to go bu just like that. I guess it was the company. We were all sharing stories of past experiences, and Bert was letting us know how he was getting ready to run Leadville later this year. Everybody looked like they were feeling pretty good, but of course, it was still early. After the aid station, we got back on the Pinhoti trail for the next 4-5 miles. Along this section is a series of switch backs first going down and then heading back up and over Turkey Mountain. It's a fun, very runnable trail and I found myself putting some distance between me and the other four. Not intentionally, but more because I was enjoying the trail and I was on a pace that was comfortable. Exactly what you want to feel while in a long distance race. We soon arrived at the Three Forks aid station and Kelly and I ended up leaving together and some how breaking up our little group. Kelly and i followed yet another forest road for a little over a mile and then back on the Pinhoti single track for what is probably my favorite part of the course. Lots of pines in this area drop tons of needles and make the trail what a good friend of mine calls "pine straw nirvana".

Kelly coming up the Pinhoti trail.
There was a group of mountain bikers out on the trail participating in a small race and this is where we would have our first "run in" with them. One of them coming down the trail happened to be John Dove, long time local ultra runner, adventure racer and just all around nice guy. He recognized me before I did him. I would have loved to talk to him for a while, but it was race time for both of us and the greeting was brief, but genuine. It was good to see him. We ran into a few more riders coming down the trail as Kelly and I kept climbing up it. We caught up and passed one of the female 100K participants and it was interesting to note how Kelly, probably without realizing it, picked up the pace to pass her. Anyway, we soon made it to the Double Top aid station and I was surprised to think back on how quickly the first 20 or so miles had gone by. The next 20 miles was all on forest roads and it is definitely the toughest part of the entire course.

Chasing Mike

As we were leaving the Double Top aid station, we saw Bailey coming in, but we were ready to go and he stopped to fuel up. As soon as we left the aid station, we passed the trailhead to get back onto the Pinhoti trail. There were a few ribbons leading down the road, but I can see how several of the other runners took this turn without realizing that the course actually followed the forest road. Kelly had run this portion of the course a couple of weeks ago, and she kept us in the right direction. The next four or so miles is just one long ass climb up Potatopatch Mountain. Kelly and I started it together, but I don't know where she find an extra gear, but she started putting a gap on me. Slowly, but surely she got away and after a short while, I could no longer see her. Bailey was too far back to wait for him, so this left me alone on my way up. Along the way, I did catch up with a few other runners including a couple of the 100 milers, and we would exchange "Good job!", but everyone was all about the business of getting up this incline. I did stop at one bend where we had a great view of the range around us. Brad, a 100 miler that I caught up with, shared that we were at 2,500 feet or so at that point. The Double Top aid station we left behind is at 1,830 feet according to the race organizers and the top of the climb is at 3,520 feet. From the bend with the scenic view we would still climb another 1,000 or so feet before the climb was done. Ugh! My hands swelled up from having them at my side for so long and just trying to put one foot in front of the other. Still, I was catching a few others and that definitely kept me going. No sight of Kelly though. She was long gone.

Once at the top, the forest road tees into another one and the race ribbons went to the right, but for some reason this was another trouble spot for some of the others. A couple of mountain bikers that had also made the climb saw that I went right and they called after another runner that had gone left. This runner was Mike Scott and once he turned around, he caught and passed me and I would end up chasing him for the next twenty or so miles. Thankfully, we did have a reprieve from the climb but it was short lived, the next several miles to the turn around point were a not-so-gently rolling rollercoaster of forest road running. I kept Mike in sight but I was definitely feeling the big climb and I was trying to keep my pace. The downhills were starting to hurt too. Bob, another 100K runner, would end up running behind me at a distance for most of this section, but I could sense that he was there and that kept me going too. Coming into the next aid station near Betty Gap, I was realizing that I was doing a good job with my nutrition, but I still took advantage of the food on the table. PB&J sandwiches were a staple of my race diet through out they day, but I also incorporated gels and some squeezable baby food fruit packets in between aid stations. While the baby food fruit packets don't provide much caloric value, they do provide some electrolyte replacement and something different from the more synthetic tasting sports gels.

Kelly and Rox shortly after
the turn around point.
Mike took off from the aid station and I soon followed. It seemed that would distance himself on the downhills, but I would slowly inch up on him on the uphills. This pattern was the same for several miles. Along the way, we passed Mountaintown Overlook which again had amazing views of the valley below and the Cohutta rage around us. Some where around this point, we were passed by the 100K race leader. He was looking strong. Up and down we went on the forest road until finally, we headed down about two or so miles of downhill running into the turn around point with more of the runners in front of us going the other way. Right before we got there, I saw Kelly coming up the forest road and she was the first female runner I had seen. Immediately, I wondered where was Rox but I soon found out when I saw Rox about thirty or so yards behind Kelly. Kelly was looking really good and I was not surprised to later find out she held her top spot. I would later catch up with Rox myself, but more on that later. I was glad to get to the turn around point. Considering the distance covered, I thought I felt pretty good. Again, my nutrition and hydration needs were being met and other than the pain associated with covering 30+ miles, my legs felt OK and I was able to still run. When we were making our way down the forest road into the aid station, I was concerned about the climb back up, but some where I found a renewed excitement and I think it was the fact that I was passed the half way point and this carried me for several miles. That and the fact that I was now determined to stay on Mike's tail for some friendly competition. It is a race after all.

Smiling at the turn around point. 50K to go!
Back up and over, and then down and back up, past the Mountaintown Overlook, past the Usti Yona aid station at Betty Gap, I followed Mike. The whole time he stayed a good twenty to forty yards in front of me but I never lost sight of him. We did see all of the other runners that were behind us coming at us as they made their way to the turn around point and I realized that we were a relatively small group. I also realized that I never saw Bert and Larry who I had run with in the first twenty miles. The thought crossed my mind that they must have took a wrong turn or they DNF'd or both. I never found out for sure, but after what I learned about people dropping out, I assume that's what happened to them too. Mike and I made the long downhill decent back to the Double Top aid station and I was happy to get here and get into my drop bag. Mike didn't waste much time and he headed out after going thourhg his drop bag and refueling at the aid station. I on the other hand took a few minutes to sort through my things, and figure out how to distribute everything, so that I didn't have to leave anything behind. I put my fresh long sleeve shirt in my running pouch and my headlamp on my head even though I wouldn't need it for a couple more hours. I ended up having to carry my vest and gloves in my hand because I had no where to put it, but I was later glad I brought them and didn't leave them behind. As I was getting my things, Greg who was managing the aid station was catching me up on what had happened with some of the other 100K and 100 mile runners dropping out. Apparently, there were quite a few from this point. Remember I mentioned John Dove earlier, well turns out that he rode his bike up the trail and "rescued" several of these lost runners earlier in the afternoon. I guess they would have gone further, if it wasn't for John.

Bringing it in

With twenty miles left to go, I knew that it was in the bag sort of speak, but in ultra running you never can be sure. Before he left the aid station, I remember Mike saying, "We'll probably hit darkness some where between the last two aid stations." and ended up being right about that. But while there was delight, I was set on covering as much ground as possible. I left the Double Top aid station up the forest road and then finally back on single track trail. It was such a relief to get off the forest road, even if there were still a few miles of it in the last segment. Going up hill, I was feeling the miles and the earlier effort, but down hill running hurt too. Yet although I was tired, my body was reacting well at this stage in the race and I felt that my "engine" was running well and ready to take on the last miles of the race. I came down the single track trail without much to do and I was soon back at the Three Forks aid station. Mike had made it into the station and left before I got there. And as I was leaving to start the climb back up the trail and Turkey Mountain, I saw Bob coming into the station. I was walking the climb, but also keeping a good pace. I stopped half way up the trail to put on my long sleeve shirt and adjust some of my clothing because the sun was starting to set and the temps were also starting to drop. Bob passed me while I was changing and admittedly, I set out to catch him once I got going again. It looked like Bob was trying to put some distance between us since he would jog a bit up the climb, but I thought I could catch him if I just kept up my pace and sure enough, that's what happened. I caught and passed him as we crested the climb and reached the saddle that led to the switchbacks on the other side. Now it was my turn to try to put some distance between us and I started running. To my mild surprise, I was holding the run and it wasn't long before I couldn't see Bob over my shoulder. Mike on the other hand was no where to be seen ahead of me.

I reached the aid station at Cohutta Overlook and there the volunteer was enjoying a Dogfishhead 90 Minute IPA and I joked that I would love to have one. It sounded so tasty! But I had my own brew goodness waiting for me back at the cabin near the finish and I think that snapped my attention to the job at hand. After leaving the aid station and covering the short segment on Highway 52, I was back on the Pinhoti trail and I picked up a runner that was in front of me, a guy named Chris from Florida. We ran together and covered the next few miles rather quickly and soon had Mike in our sights. We steadily caught up to Mike and by the time we were back on the Tatum Lead forest road, the three of us ran together for just a short while. I pushed on with my pace and while darkness settled around me, I soon found myself by myself with two headlamps bobbing up and down in the distance behind me. This boosted my confidence and I worked hard to keep that distance or widen it. I reached the single track trail again that descended down into the valley where the creeks we crossed earlier laid waiting for me.

As I reached the bottom, I saw the light of a headlamp in front of me and I wondered who it was. Soon I realized it was Rox. I caught up to her and it was good to see her. She encouraged me and I pushed on past her. The creek water felt good when I reached the first crossing and I didn't mind getting my shoes wet. After the first couple of creeks, I came out into an open field where all of a sudden I lost the trail among the tall grass. It took me a second to realize this, but I stayed focused and looked around to figure out my situation. I saw another headlamp to my left and I ran towards it. It was my buddy, Brack, and he had been roaming this field for about twenty minutes trying to find his way back on the trail. We tagged together and headed towards our right along a tree line and then we saw two other headlamps ahead of us through the trees. It was Rox and Chris. We bushwhacked through the trees and across a creek to get to them. Thankfully, we were back on the trail. We all ran together for a bit, but soon Brack and I left Rox and Chris behind. Before long, we were at the last aid station. It was like a lighted oasis in the dark. The volunteers cooked me up a grilled cheese sandwich and while I waited, I munched on some cold pizza. It all hit the spot! All that was left was the last big climb up the Pinhoti Connector. I grabbed my grilled cheese sandwich and Brack and I headed up the trail. Munching on my sandwich, we made progress up the climb. The darkness had definitely settled in and we had to really watch our step. The Pinhoti Connector is covered in leaves and of all the single track trail we had been all day, it was the most technical with loose rocks and down branches all over the trail. Combine that with the grade, and this was easily the hardest part of the course other than the big climb to the top of Potatopatch earlier in the day. It took a while, but we finally made it to the entrance of the park. Only about three miles left to go.

Brack and I entered the park and settled into a pattern of walking then run-walking the rest of the course. We did almost make a mistake when the trail intersected with the gahuti Trail, but managed to stay on the correct route. As usual, the last couple of miles seemed to be endless. Anticipation stretches the last miles out, it seems. After some time, we reached the park road and then the lake where on the other side we knew Perry was waiting for us. Making our way around the lake, we soon started to see the finish line tent and the Xmas lights hanging from them. Even though we were excited, we didn't really pick up our pace much. We were happy to just trod around the lake and finish up the race. Looking behind us, we couldn't see any headlamps, so we knew that we wouldn't be caught by anyone. Soon, we saw Perry's smiling face adn when we reached the tent, he congratulated us and handed us our finisher's Double Top 100K coins. Kelly was there waiting for us too. She told us that she had finished an hour earlier and that she had won the women's race. I was so happy for her. Brack and I finished in 14:03 and were 6th and 7th respectively overall. I exceeded my expected finish time by about an hour, so I was very pleased with my finish and pleasently surprised by my position in the race. I later learned that there were more drops and that only about 20 or so finished the 100K course.

All finishers received this cool coin at the finish!
I high fived Brack and thanked him for sticking with me for the last couple of miles and hugged Kelly. We waited for Rox to finish and while waiting for her, Chris arrived first about ten minutes behind us and then Mike, who I had chased for many miles earlier in the race, came in shortly after him. We were starting to get worried about Rox when we saw a headlamp and from out of the shadows she appearred. Apparently, she had taken a wrong turn with about a mile to go and spent ten minutes or so retracing her steps. We were glad to see her and she was even more glad to finish herself. After a short break, Kelly, Rox and I headed to our cabin for a much deserved shower, food and a change of clothes.

Getting turned around and dropping out

I couldn't have asked for a better day or race. As challenging as the course is, I still found it enjoyable and what I liked about it the most was the change in landscape and especially the amazing views. For much of the course, you get frontline views of the Cohutta Mountains all around you. I know that when Perry designed this course, he wanted it to be challenging, but he also wanted people to really appreciate it for how beautiful it is. In the original plan for the route, there was a section of the Pinhoti trail at Bear Creek that was supposed to be a part of the course, but due to restrictions from the National Park Service, these trails were off limits to the race and an alternate route was designed along forest roads. With that, it is still a beautiful course with an incredible array of different vegetation including awesome, green lichens along one section of the Pinhoti trail and scenery that rivals any on the east coast. The route also has its drawbacks, however. There are several turns that are easy to miss and even some that can lead the participant astray. I, personally, did not have any major problems on the course, but a good part of that was because I had come out weeks earlier to preview the first 20 miles and also I was running with others that knew the course as well. There were two or three turns that were questionable and that I was glad I had either some one with me or that I had the route map the race organizers provided with me.

During and after the race, I heard of many who dropped out simply because they had taken a wrong turn, missed a turn or just went down the wrong way. There was an entire group of ten or so 100 milers that went ten miles out of their way on the Pinhoti Trail before finally realizing that they were off course. Some of the 100K participants also made the same error and then dropped once they made it back to the Double Top aid station. Yet another small group of 100 milers went down too far on the Tatum Mountain forest road and missed the single track back to the last aid station. Local forest emergency services were called to find them and once found, the race was temporarily suspended. Causing about two or three of the 100 mile runners to drop out because they were stuck at the Cohutta Overlook aid station. Of the 80 or so participants that were registered for both races, less than half finished. With most having dropped mainly from disappointment of having gone too far in the wrong direction. I feel bad for those participants and I can sympathize with their frustration, but at the same time, I feel that this is part of our sport. The race organizers took steps to provide all the tools to successfully navigate the course including sending a detailed document two nights before the race with every trail, forest road, aid station, elevation points, etc. They also held a race meeting the night before where these details were presented and every participant was provided with a route map inside a ziploc baggy. The course was marked with blue/white and blue ribbons and occasional signs. I agree that the ribbons were sparse in many sections and for a couple of turns, hard to see. Which was the problem and they certainly were difficult to find in the dark during the night. I provided what I hope was constructive feedback to the race organizers that for future races, the reflective orange survey flags would work best. All in all, it's a bummer that so many missed out. It really was a good course and the race has potential to become a classic on the Southeast race calendar. All inaugural events have kinks to work out and I hope the people that walked away frustrated will look back and realize that given the opportunity to do it again, they would line up at the start with other enthusiastic runners. I know I will. Even classic races like Western States have their route troubles, the 2011 race comes to mind when Killian Jornet, Nick Clark and others ran off course for a few miles in the early stages of the race, but still finished it. In the end, that's ultrarunning. That's our sport.

2012 Double Top 100K race results

2012 Double Top 100 blog roll:


  1. What an adventure; and a great positive attitude about the kinks! Can't say I'd run it, but it looks like it was fun! :)
    As always, love your race reports!

  2. Great time for that course. I paced Jon Barker for the last 19 miles and that climb up from the last aid station is long even for someone who only had 15 miles on their legs.
    Maybe come run the Pinhoti in November if you are not doing Ironman Florida. It is a great point to point race. You know what the middle section is like from Mt. Cheaha 50k.
    Hope to spend some time with you on the trails again soon.

  3. Thanks, Jess! I think you have a 100K in ya. And thanks, John! Pinhoti 100 is on the short list, but I'm not sure about this year. I paced a friend there for the 15 miles a few years back and loved it. Good job pacing! You had more than 15 miles on your legs after spending the day on your mountain bike. I hope to see you on the trails soon as well.

  4. Great job, Javi! Great report! I wish I could have been there with you.

  5. Javi, great job Saturday! Always smiling and always happy, I was glad to see you finally pass me and take it to the house. Good strong finish after a long day. I thought I had you gone after each A/S on the way in, but you had good pacing and surged past just as we lost daylight. I could not hang on with you and Chris on that descent to the creek. I did remember how to get across that field and back on the road. The water crossings felt great after 13.5 hours and the grilled cheese was awesome before climbing the 1000' back out. I wondered about Rox as I did not pass her. I think we had a good group of runners out there to keep company with for a great day in the wilderness. See you at the next race and thanks for the story. Next time, if you tell the story of Mike going the wrong way and how I crushed Mike at 53 miles at least get my picture on your site.

  6. Ha, ha! Mike, I will do that next time for sure. Good running with ya on Saturday.

  7. Great report, Javi! I heard that Double Top was a real challenge for everyone, and I wish that I could have been up there to help out last weekend. This course is a future goal.

  8. Great report, Javi! Always good to see you out there!