Welcome! The intent of Anecdotes from the Trail is to share my experiences while trail running or racing (occasionally on the road too.) And to feature other trail runners and their accomplishments. You may see the occasional gear review or even contest. Please visit from time to time. Happy trails!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Not-So-Ugly: Pine Mountain 40-Miler 12.4.11

High fiving Woody as I was coming into the first aid station.
I ran the Pine Mountain 40-Miler back in 2009 and at the time, I provided a play-by-play report then of that race on the blog. So, I thought I’d take a different approach to this race report. I’m gonna break this up for what it was in reality, an experience that proved to be…the good, the bad and the not-so-ugly.


As always, the good included an opportunity to trail run in the woods with a bunch of friends. It was so great to see so many out on the course, whether they were running, or volunteering. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the volunteers and specifically to thank Kena (even though she was following and supporting another runner, it almost seemed like she was supporting me every time I saw her at every aid station), Phillip (who pointed out my bloody nipples at mile 31 and offered sports tape), Kim, Harry, Joel, Jenn, Jason, Rachel and all the other volunteers  for the killer support at the Mollyhugger Hill, Dowden Knob and Rocky Point aid stations, and to Sarah (the RD) and the rest of the GUTS crew for another well organized and supported event. Frank gets special mention for serving up the grilled cheese sandwiches at the TV Tower aid stop. Too many friends out there running to list here, but I did get to catch up with many of them post-race at the finish line. A couple of special shout outs to Laura, Aaron D. and Woody D., it was not to be their day for any of them as they all DNF’d for various reasons, but that’s how it goes some times. We’ve all been there. The beauty of the sport is that there’s always the next race.

Another good thing about the race was the swag. Everyone received a really nice, fleece winter cap and all the finishers took home a sporty, fleece half-zip top. That beats a t-shirt any day.

When it comes to the race itself and how the day went for me, my first 24 miles definitely represent the good. I arrived at the start with just a few minutes to spare to hit the bathroom and pick up my number. I also realized when I arrived, that I had forgotten my hand-held water bottle. Not again! This happened to me at Stump Jump a couple of months ago, but luckily this time I had a spare one liter water bottle in the car that  I had brought for after the race. It would be my faux football to carry the whole race, but it was a savior. Anyway my buddy, Woody, drove separately, but we both managed to arrive about the same time. We lined up with everyone and after a few words from the RD, we were off. Woody took off with the leaders and I held back and decided to find a spot closer to the middle of the pack. Soon we were on single track trail and the pecking order seemed pretty set since no one seemed overly anxious to pass for the first few miles. I really did feel good. I was chatting it up with others around me. I met some great people that I would end up seeing all day long, like John from Oak Ridge, TN who was running his first 40-miler, and Elizabeth from Atlanta, GA who would end up dropping me for good at around mile 33 after passing each other several times through out the race. When I ran part of the course with my buddy, Doug, a couple of weeks ago, we ran out past the point where the Mollyhugger Hill aid stop would be during the race, which is about mile 11 of the course. I remember then thinking that I wanted to be at this spot two hours into the race and sure enough, that’s what happened. In fact, I hit mile 12 or so at the two hour mark and I started thinking that a sub-8 hour race would be doable after all. I ran the course in 7:58 the last time, but I was coming into this race a lot less prepared and with fewer long runs on my legs. So a sub-8 hour race was optimistic. The next couple of aid stops were very welcome sights because to get to them we had to traverse through tornado devastated portions of the course, but more on that later. Needless to say, I reached the TV Tower aid stop (about mile 22) and I was still feeling pretty decent, but the wheels would soon come off.


Refueling on an uphill.
Back in April, a storm and several tornadoes laid waste to the immediate area in and near the park. Huge sections of forest trees were tumbled over like little toothpicks. Trees were down, uprooted and slashed. Volunteers had obviously spent many man hours cleaning up and chain sawing miles and miles of the trail. We would encounter the first of these sections about 12 miles into the race and it was a good mile long, between the Mollyhugger Hill and Dowdell Knob aid stops. On the upside, because the trees were down, there were no leaves on the trail. One of the stand out characteristics of the Pine Mountain 40-miler is the leaves you encounter on the trail from the autumn foliage and the level of difficulty they add on the already technical and rocky trail. In the tornado sections, there were no leaves, but there was also nothing else. I mean no life. It was kind of eerie and depressing to see. And when I spoke with other runners later, we agreed that there was like a bad spiritual vibe, a bad energy of sorts. There were other sections on the course that were just as devastated and I couldn’t help feel the same thing every time. On the way back at around mile 30, I was crossing one of these sections for the last time and the sun was out. Even though it was December, it was unseasonably warm and I was already feeling crappy at this point. Between the sun, the depressing landscape and the miles on my legs, I hit the wall hard. By the time I arrived at the Mollyhugger Hill aid station again around 31.5 miles in, I was walking and I still had my least favorite section of the trail left to go.

We all hit the wall at some point, right?  I mean it happens to the most experienced of athletes, the Lance Armstrongs and even Kilian Jornets of the world. But man, there’s no comfort in knowing that and it always sucks. Like I said, I started to fall apart and at mile 30 started walking without running again and it lasted several miles. I wasn’t injured. I didn’t have any blisters. I felt like I had managed my nutrition just fine. But obviously some thing just turned off like a switch inside. Earlier at around mile 23, I had a second wind and I had passed several runners that I had shared the trail with for a few miles. I had tucked my water bottle into my arm and I kept a steady pace. I even managed to run up one of the few decent climbs on the race course and I thought I put some distance on runners behind me. But when things went south for me, they went south fast. Many of those same runners, now caught me and passed me. After the aid station, we jumped on a white-blazed trail that is a lot less traveled by hikers and the footing was more difficult with the leaves and rocks. I was so fried, that it was all I could do to just put one foot in front of the other. As I walked, more and more runners would pass including Elizabeth who dropped me here for the last time. I wouldn’t see her again until after crossing the finish. She gave me a smile and a thumbs up and flew by me like I was standing still. I walked and walked and just tried to stay positive. Now I thought if I finished in under nine hours, I would be lucky. But in ultras, many times if you feel like crap, you just gotta hang on and some times things can turn around. And they did.


I came off the white-blazed trail and hit the last manned aid station of the course, Fox Den Cove, at around mile 34 of the course. I lingered at the aid station and drank and ate my fill. I was joking around with the volunteers and they were great. At one point, one of them told me that my time was up and that I had to get moving. I looked at him and thanked him. A sign of a good aid station in a race is they know when to push the runners along. There’s no sense in my hanging out and the only way I was going to finish the race was to get a move on. Leaving the station, there was a slight down hill and feeling a bit rejuvenated I tried to jog a bit. It didn’t feel too bad. I alternated jogging the down hills and walking the up hills until I eventually came up on a runner that had passed me earlier when I was really feeling terrible. Now it looked like it was his turn to feel like crap, but he was managing to stay in front of me, the more I tried to catch him. This went on for a little bit until we crossed a road and started on the final climb of the day. We were both walking, but I was determined to pass him. Slowly I inched up on him and finally passed him. Encouraged by this, I started running up the hill and realized that I could hold the pace. Once on the ridge, I made it a point to put some distance between the two of us and I didn’t look back. I crossed the final road crossing and the rest of the way was down hill. Just a little over two miles to go. I was so excited. I ran down the descent and never really walked again. The trail soon leveled off and followed a creek back to the finish. As I was nearing the end, I saw local ultra-legend, Richard Schick ahead of me. He had passed me earlier when I was toast. He has also “schicked” me before at the Mt. Cheaha 50K when he passed me with less than a mile to go at that race. So, I thought that maybe I could return the favor. He was getting closer, but as we crossed the last foot bridge he had about a 20 yard lead on me and the finish line was too close. He finished with 8:32:23 on the race clock and I crossed the line at 8:32:34. I high fived Richard, thanked  some of the GUTS crew hanging out at the finish and found the nearest spot to sit my tired ass down. Tough race, but I had seen the good, the bad, and the not-so-ugly of it. I was happy to be done and with my time.

Thank you to Vikena Yutz for the photos!

2011 Pine Mountain 40-Miler blog roll:
Sarah Woerner (female winner and new course record holder)
Aaron Dwileski 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

2011 Pine Mountain 40: Race Preview

It's Thursday, so only three days left for the 2011 Pine Mountain 40-Miler on December 4th. I am going into this race with a big question mark, my race fitness. My training has been minimal, in fact I've only had two 20+ runs since my last race, the Stump Jump 50K back on the first weekend in October. I should be fine, but I can't help feeling a bit undertrained. To boot, I picked up some nasty virus this past weekend and it had me in bed for pretty much  the whole weekend. I didn't run for four days, which is odd for me. I guess a little forced taper rest should do me some good. I've shaken the bug and I do feel better, but we'll see what this means for Sunday's race.

I ran Pine Mountain 40 back in 2009 and I really enjoyed it. You can read my race report: http://anecdotesfromthetrail.blogspot.com/2009/12/pine-mountain-40-miler.html. It's a challenging course on leaves-covered, rocky single track trail following much of the Pine Mountain trail out of FDR State Park. The scenery is fantastic as the course includes some good ridge line running. The most obvious feature of the course are the rocks. Lots of them. They definitely keep you watching your footwork as you progress to the finish.

Here's an elevation profile I borrowed from my buddy, Jason's blog:

I did get to preview the course recently with one of my running buddy's, Doug. We drove down there a couple of Fridays ago and we ran about 25 miles, mostly on the Pine Mountain trail. The leaves were just starting to fall, so I'm sure the trail is totally covered by them now. We ran up to the spot where some tornadoes wreaked havoc earlier this year. I'm sure I'll get to see more of the damage on race day. I hear that the trail is clear of the storm debris now.

Last time, I ran the race in under eight hours. I'd be happy if I did the same this time, but we'll see how I feel on race day. The weather forecast is ideal with partly cloudy, temps in the mid-30's to start and mid-60's by about the time I finish.

I'm picking up Woody at about 5:00am and we are hitting the road. We should get there just in time to pick up our packets and be ready to start. I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Where's my f@#king water bottle?" Stump Jump 50K 10.1.11

Coming into the finish at the 2011 Stump Jump 50K. My friend Robin right on my tail. (photo by checkpointphotos.com)
I was standing there in front of Signal Mountain High School surrounded by hundreds of other trail runners anxiously waiting for the Stump Jump 50K to start, when it hit me. "Oh shit! I left my hand held in the car. Crap!" Immediately my mind was racing. "I still have my phone. I could call Stacy (my wife) and ask her to come back.", but that was not a realistic option. Stacy had dropped me off twenty minutes earlier and was well on her way back to the hotel. Besides, by the time she made it back, the race would have started. What was I going to do? The thought of running the whole race without a handheld passed through my brain for a nanosecond, but it was shot down faster than it made its way through my grey matter. There's no way I was going to run 31+ miles on rugged trails through Tennessee without my water bottle. I don't care how many aid stations the race had set up or how amazingly perfect the weather was turning out to be (40's for the start, sunny and no humidity...yes, perfect). I looked around and several of my friends were already in the start group. Others were milling about, minding their own business. Then I saw the Zulu Racing trailer and thought that maybe my buddy, Mike, from Zulu would have a water bottle.

Tim and me before I realized, "Where's my water bottle?"
(photo by Jeff B./Rock Creek)
I jogged over and caught his attention. Imagine it as he's trying to make sure everything is ready for 700+ trail runners to cross his starting mats, I'm bugging the guy for a freaking water bottle. "Hey Mike, you gotta help me out buddy! Would you happen to have an extra water bottle laying around?" He didn't even hesitate and quickly got on to the business of finding me one. He said, "Hold on. I think I may have one in the car." He trots off. There's only minutes left for the race to start. Maybe less. he soon comes back with what would make my day, a cheap, giant 30-something ounce water bottle. The thing looked like a baby bottle on steroids, but I couldn't have been more excited. Mike asked, "Will this work?" Without even thinking twice I said, "Hell yes! I'll take it." I gladly took it from him and he went back to do his thing while I jumped in line to do mine. Luckily, there was already about a third of the water bottle filled with what I hoped was water (it was).

Runners at the start.
We got through the announcements with Diane Van Deren wishing us all luck and we were off. I didn't care how my first few miles would go. I was just happy to have saved a potential catastrophe. The 11-milers and the 50K runners were split off within the first quarter mile while a helicopter flew over head assumingly filming the start. Soon after, all of us 50K runners were on single track trail behind the high school. I knew these first few miles well from having run the race last year and also from having run stage 3 back in June of the Rock/Creek Stage Races. It's a mostly downhill jaunt to what's called Mushroom Rock. Everyone was finding their own groove as we made our way down. I was thinking of a couple of friends of mine who were running their first 50K, but more on them later.

In last year's race, I went out feeling good and even made it to about mile 26 with thoughts of breaking 6-hours. But the reality of the return climb of those last five or six miles just took it out of me along with the warmer than usual temperatures that day. Today's forecast promised for better results, but I still decided to go conservative for the first half of the race. At the first aid station, just before the steep descent after Mushroom Rock, I filled up my Frankenstein water bottle about two-thirds full. I didn't want to fill it up all the way, because it would weigh a ton. Making my way down, I shifted the bottle from one hand to the other, trying to determine which one was more comfortable. It wasn't going to matter. I soon learned that during some sections of the course, I would have to carry it like a football. Yep, the ultra-trail runner version of the Heismann pose.

We came to the suspended bridge and remarkably traffic was light. There weren't many runners with me crossing the bridge. There were some campers hanging out nearby next to a fire sipping on their morning coffee and I can only assume that they were less than amused with the hundreds of people that were ruining their "one with nature" morning. Oh well! I conservatively walked the climb after crossing the bridge and made my way down to Sucks Creek and the next aid station. Refueled on a banana and some Pringles and continued across Sucks Creek road, up some stairs and then up the single track towards the bluff. This is by far my favorite part of the course. Once you make it to the bluff, you have these amazing rock outcroppings jutting out of the ground to your right and a fabulous view of the valley below to your left. I'm sure if you read my blog report from last year's race there is a similar sentence in there, but it really is beautiful. I found myself running with a couple of other runners and we would stick together until the mile 10 aid station.

Some of the leaders early on.
(photo by Jeff B./Rock Creek)
There were a ton of family and friends waiting at this aid station and you could hear them a good half mile before arriving there. Plenty of cowbells and cheering. It was pretty nice despite not having anyone I knew there. I didn't waste much time at the stop. I refilled my giganto-bottle again, grabbed a few apple slices and took off. I was determined to keep up my nutritional intake for this race, so I was also supplementing my aid stop grazing with GU Roctane gels every 45 minutes or so. I was feeling pretty good!

Leaving the station, I caught up with another runner who seemed to already be having some trouble. He was walking the uphills, but not in a purposeful way, so much as in an inefficient, "wheels are beginning to fall off" kind of way. I passed him for a moment, but then on a decline, he flew by me and the next guy in front of me like a man on a mission. I thought that was weird and I also figured that there was no way he was going to maintain that pace. Sure enough, about a mile later, we both passed him and I never saw him again. A short while later, I heard a thud like the ground shaking, followed by an "ah, mother f@#%$#r!" I wondered if that was him and that maybe he had fallen and hurt himself. I would never find out. Meanwhile, I fell into the same running pace as this guy from Wisconsin and we were soon joined by another runner, Andrew, from Franklin, TN. We stayed together until the mile 16 aid stop and made good time together. We started chatting and it really helped the miles go by. Both of them had never run this race before and the guy from Wisconsin was running his first 50K. I warned them to save some in the tank for the last five miles. We got to the aid stop and we got split up. Leaving the stop, you have to go up a major climb before settling back into some very runnable ridge line trails and before hitting the dreaded, so-called Rock Garden around mile 18. I had started the race with gloves and arm sleeves, but had taken them both off earlier. However, the wind was blowing pretty good and it was chilly, so I put the arm sleeves back on.

I made it through the Rock Garden and soon came out at the mile 19 aid station. I looked at my watch and I basically had two hours and fifteen or so minutes to finish this thing in less than six hours. I felt good and I knew that if I could just keep my pace for the next few miles, I would only have the two big climbs after Sucks Creek to deal with before the finish. I left the station excited about my possibilites and went on down the trail. I ran much of the next section by myself, which was fine by me. I did pass a couple of guys and that just helped my confidence. About a mile before reaching Sucks Creek again, Andrew and a female runner started catching up to me. I thought I could stay ahead and so I picked it up a bit. Not a good idea! At one point, I had to pick myself up off the ground and fetch my 'football' water bottle that had landed a few yards ahead of me. I had tripped on a root or something, but luckily it was on a soft portion of the trail. No rocks, phew! Anyway, it wasn't long before those two definitely caught up and we made our way down to the road together.

Once back at Sucks Creek, it was just about a 10K left, but with some mean climbing still left to do. Last year, this is where it started falling apart for me and I was determined to not let it happen again. I walked the climbs, but I didn't lose pace due to fatigue. I kept it steady and purposeful. I made it up and over the first climb and quickly found myself crossing the suspended bridge again. Just Mushroom Rock left. I was certainly feeling it at this point, but I wasn't drained and that again boosted my confidence. I once again kept a steady walking pace up towards Mushroom Rock. The female runner that had been behind me earlier on the descent into Sucks Creek passed me and I would only see her again briefly at the next aid station. One foot in front of the other, I just kept chugging up the hill. I saw Mushroom Rock and was happy to hear the chatter at the last aid station. They had beer! It was Stroh's, but who cares. It was beer! I had a shot of that and some other goodies and looked at my watch. I had about 40 minutes or so to get it done under six hours. I better get a move on.

Me, my finish medal and my hilariously, extra-large
water bottle.  I couldn't have done the
race without it.
The last few miles of this course feel endless. I felt decent and I was keeping pace just fine, but it still seemed like it was taking forever to get this done. I did manage to catch a couple of other runners, but I was also passed by a few as well. The last little bit is on the XC trails of Signal Mountain High School, so it's pretty manicured. I came out to a road crossing and one of the volunteers there said there was only .8 miles to go. Liar! It was much longer. I kept looking at my watch. 5:55, 5:56, 5:57...there was no way this was only .8 miles left. Finally, I came out on the last bit of road and I knew I was almost there. I did get passed in that last half mile, but only by one other runner. As I made my way into the finish, I almost missed my wife and a friend cheering me on. I looked up at the race clock and saw 6:03 and change on it. Oh well, I tried, but I ended up with 6:03:33 officially. Not bad at all. It beat last year's time by nine minutes. So I was happy! I got my medal and some grub and kissed my wife. Then I high fived the guys from Zulu Racing and thanked them profusely for letting me borrow the water bottle. I would have been miserable with out it, even though it was awkward and it weighed a ton.

Jessica and Amanda with their finisher's medals.
Next I pulled up a camper chair with my wife and others, a cooler full of beer and we cheered other 50K finishers on while waiting for Amanda and Jessica to finish their first 50K. It was fun to see everyone coming in and it was also a good time catching up with other finishers. It was really good to see some fellow GUTS runners, Sean O., Robin, Wayne, Jason (read his race report) and Joel. As well as some fellow Twitter runners like Tim, Cathi and Dan (good sharing a beer with ya, Dan). Amanda came through at 8:29 and then Jessica made it in 9:22. Both of them smiling. I was very happy to see them finish and I was proud of their accomplishment. Here's Jessica's race report.

I really enjoy the Rock/Creek races. Stump Jump 50K has to be one of the most beautiful trail courses in the country. If you have stumbled upon this blog and are contemplating running it, I highly recommend it.

What's next for me? Another visit to the Pine Mountain 40-Miler in December. Stay tuned. Cheers!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Rock/Creek Stage Race: Day 3 Signal Mountain 06.19.11

All smiles before the start!
(photo by jeff@rockcreek.com)
What a day! I write this and I'm trying to organize my thoughts looking back on not just day three of the Rock/Creek Chattanooga Mountain Stage Race, but on the whole weekend of trail racing. I'm exhausted, but I am not spent spiritually. For me, this has been a weekend of comraderie with other people who share the same passion for a sport we love. It is going to be hard to come down from this experience. I'll try to capture day three in words...

I was sitting in my car parked at the start/finish area in Signal Mountain, TN and thinking to myself, "Well, this is it. Last day of running through the woods with 160 of your new found friends, Javier." While I was putting on my trail shoes and adjusting things, people all around me were doing the same. We were all gearing up for one last day of trail racing. This time on the hardest stage of the three. Nobody seemed nervous really. If anything, the look on people's faces was one of anticipation, maybe even excitement. I know I was. I was doubly excited too, because my wife and son drove up from Atlanta the day before and I knew they would be at the finish to see me in. Best Father's Day present I could imagine, that's for sure.

Before the start of the race, some other friends had come up from Atlanta to participate in this stage and it was good to see them and exchange best wishes with them.

It was overcast to start, but the forecast was for hot and humid by mid-day. Also, a wicked storm blew through the night before which would add a degree of difficulty to the day's stage with tree limbs fallen on the trail and damp, wet rocks through certain sections. I'll get to the rocky sections in a moment.

Once we were all ready, all the runners gathered again to hear some announcements by Randy, the race director. He mentioned something ominous that would stick in my head during the stage. He said, "The technical stuff doesn't really start until mile 9 or so. You'll know it when you hit it." As he said this, he said it with this wry smile on his face. He knew what was in store for us. And with that, he let us go right at 8:00am.

The first part of the course follows much of the same route as the Stump Jump 50K in October. When I did that race last year, I remember the last few miles coming back very well. They almost finished me. It consists of two long climbs. For the stage race and just like the Stump Jump race, the first few miles are mostly down hill past a rock formation called Mushroom Rock and down to a suspension bridge crossing a creek. Then back up a steep climb over a ridge and down again to a road. For Stump Jump, you cross the road to continue on the race route. For stage races, this is a turn around point and you head back the way you came, back up the long climb while slower runners were coming down. After some initial shifting in the order, I got on the heels of a couple of guys from Nashville. They were keeping a pretty good pace and I felt like I could keep up with them. This may have been a mistake, as I later found out.

We made it back to Mushroom Rock in good time and this is where the race route breaks off from the Stump Jump course. We hopped on a singletrack trail that made its way along the edge of a ridge and we would enjoy this for several miles. It wasn't overly technical, but it had enough rocks and tree limbs on the trail to keep you watching your footwork. We had several miles before aid station two, so we just maintained the pace and worked our way ever closer to it. At a couple of points, we saw amazing rock outcroppings where you could look out into the valley below, but we didn't make time to stop and enjoy it. One of the the guys in front of me invited me to get ahead. he said, "Go on, if you want. I don't want to hold you back." And I said, "Don't worry. I'm just trying to hold on. You're not holding me back." Both of them had run the stage last year and they were commenting about how they were going to finish. One of them mentioned that if we finished in three and a half hours that we were doing good. That made me hesitate because in my head I was giving myself less time than that to finish, but clearly I had no idea what was in store.

A couple of the front runners on the stairs.
(Photo by jeff@rockcreek.com)
The trail in this section was rolling with no major climbs or descents, so we made good progress. Soon we reached the aid station. I had to tie my shoe and by the time I did that and replenished my water bottle, the guys I was running with ahd already taken off. I hit the trail behind them, but never saw them again. Earlier, we had passed my buddy, Tim, who was once again easing off his pace. I should have followed his example. I wasn't by myself, there was a runner behind me that I managed to stay in front for some time. The trail between aid station two and three was only a couple of miles long, but they would end up being the toughest couple of miles of all three days of stage racing. Again, Randy's words stuck in my head, this was technical stuff indeed. Most of these two miles involved getting by long sections of rocks. With the storm the night before, much of it was still damp which made me even more cautious in dealing with this section. The difficulty of the terrain and the quick pace I ran for the first nine miles of the day were catching up to me. Hell, it was probably the fifty miles of cumulative running over the last couple of days that were also catching up with me. I started to slow down. The runner that was behind me, was in front fo me before long and I was left alone until we came to a series of stair climbs. Up and up they went and these steps did me in.

Another runner caught up to me on the stairs and together we came into the third aid station. I was wiped out. He was fresh. We got what we needed from the aid station and headed out. We went up a road for a bit following the flag markers. When we came to an intersection, neither of us was sure which way to go, so we went straight. He was stronger than me at this point and got ahead. I was looking for markers after a while but didn't see any and I thought it was weird that we would run on asphalt for this long. I turned around and headed back to the intersection. I turned right and finally saw another marker. I was back on track. I also picked up another runner and and together we were back on single track soon. This runner had been at Western States the year before and she was telling me about her experience. This helped me forget how crappy I was feeling at the time. Down we went and it wasn't long before we were following the trail along side a creek. The trail wasn't as tough as the earlier section, but it still had its share of rocky segments. It also had a series of suspension bridges to cross which were a bit slippery and we had to be mindful of our steps.

The guy that had run ahead of me on the asphalt, soon caught up and passed us. He was upset about the "detour". Actually, he was really upset. My thought was that although I didn't care to lose time going the wrong way, I feel that it's just part of racing. Not much you can do about it.

The female runner I was running with also dropped me and I was again alone getting by on the trail. I was walking anything that remotely seemed like an incline and I was walking through the more technical sections. A couple more runners started catching up and passing me. A clear sign that I was toast. I tried to not think about it too much and take in the beautiful scenery of the trail. It really was spectacular running through the woods, along a creek and the weather was cooperating even though I could feel the temperature rising some and the humidity was high.

I was glad to reach aid station four and I knew I only had a handful of miles to go. The trail became much easier at this point and I just kept moving. I tried to latch on to a couple of runners that caught me, but it was futile. They dropped me too. This was it, I just had to finish my own race. The last couple of miles were endless. I was ready for the finish line. More runners caught me and passed me and I got "chicked" a couple of times in the last couple of miles.

Finally, I could hear the music of the finish line and Randy making announcements. When I came off the trail and out into the open, I turned to the finish. As I came near, I could see my wife and my son with big supporting smiles on their faces. I picked up my step and came through the chute exhausted. I'm not sure I could have gone another mile. I ran really well on the first two stages and for the first half of the third day, but it wasn't pretty for the second half of this third stage.

I high-fived some of the other runners that had finished before me, grabbed something to drink and a seat at a picnic table while my family made their way towards me. I gave my wife a kiss and my son a big Father's Day hug.
Me and my son.

Once I recovered some what, I picked up my finisher's award and my free pair of Smartwool socks. I then took a look at the results. I finished stage three in 4:12. It took me almost an hour and a half longer to finish the 20 mile course compared to stage one's 18 mile course. That shows you just how hard is day three. The cumulative results were also posted...my time for all three days was 10:26:55 and I came in at 37th place overall. Not bad, I was really happy with that. If this was one continous ultra-race, that would have been one hell of a pace for sixty miles at a 10:43/mile.

I had never before run a stage race, but I am really glad that I ran this one. Like all Rock/Creek events, it is an extremely well put together event. I'm already looking to see if there are others like it around the country. The Gore-Tex Transrockies has been on my short list for some time. Maybe I need to figure out how to add that to my race calendar sooner versus later.

I'd like to thank Randy and Kris Whorton for all they do to put these races together and to Rock/Creek for supporting them. I'm looking forward to running Stump Jump 50K again in October.

*Visit the official race blog with updated results and photos for stage race day three.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rock/Creek Stage Race: Day 2 Lookout Mountain 06.18.11

Chattanooga Mountain Stage Race Day Two
about half a mile from the finish.
(Photo by jeff@rockcreek.com)
Day two started the same way that day one did, overcast and almost cool. Praise the running gods! The difference being that the humidity had increased over the day before, but the overcast skies would be much appreciated on another long morning of running on the trails.

The course for stage 2 travels through the Lula Lake Land Trust Preserve. It consisted of a five mile loop then a twelve mile loop and then a repeat of the initial five mile loop but in the opposite direction. Along the way, we would experience significantly more climbing and descending than what we did on stage 1.

I carpooled with the race directors that morning, so I arrived much earlier than most of the other runners. I was able to watch the start/finish area get set up while the volunteers showed up and then of course the runners. I was feeling good about this stage. I woke up with not much to complain about from day one's run. I was happy with my performance and I was still wondering if perhaps I had run it too fast. There was only one way to truly find out and that would be once the race started. After much sitting around, it was time to get this stage started. We were off right at 8:00am.

Unlike yesterday, we had almost a mile of gravel road to stretch the field and get folks into place before hitting any single track. This was nice, and it allowed me to feel out my legs and other than a slight tightness in my right abductor, I felt good. It would quickly loosen up within the first couple of miles. We made our way past the beautiful Lula Falls when we arrived to the first bit of singletrack. All of a sudden, I felt this sharp pain just above my right knee, then I felt it again on my shin. I reached down and smacked at what ever it was and I realized that I had been stung by a couple of yellowjackets. A couple of other runners cried out too. Seems we pissed of a nest as we ran by. Not how I wanted to start my race.

This occured right before a very, steep climb that I was familiar with from my experience at the Lookout Mountain 50-Miler last year. In fact, much of stage two's trails are part of that race, so it was familiar to me. Back to the climb, the race organizers set up ropes for the climb and there was a slight bottleneck as runners made their way up. Once at the top of the ridge, we thinned out again. I tried to get into my own groove and I wanted to run on my own, but I ended up running with a couple of runners along the ridge and then on the way down off the ridge. Before we descended, I tried to sneak a few peeks to my left into the valley below. Many of the trails in Chattanooga have great vistas and this one is fantastic. We ran the ridge for a while, descended down a long wide trail, then a single track down to a creek and made our way back to the start/finish area where we would hit our first aid station. First loop done and I was feeling good except for my yellowjacket stings. I had a little swelling, but it wasn't bothering my running. At the aid station, I grabbed a couple of apple halves, downed some Coke and headed off.

The next five or six miles were mostly uphill. The first section appeared to be a really abandoned forest road that was overgrown with small trees and we had to duck in and out of them. Once through that, we crossed a road, ran up a trail with mossy, flatrocks that were a little slick and then hit some singletrack. We climbed but the grade was gradual enough for most of it, that we could run. While we ran, we kept coming across debris that had landed along the trail from the tornadoes that hit this area back in April. There were a number of trees down too and the ones that had fallen across the trail had been cleared by chainsaw. I guess nature has to show who's boss every once in a while.

We reached a powerline cut out and did a short series of zig zags in and out of the woods and the cut out. On the last time we ran back into the woods, we were confronted with a mean climb straight up on single track. This was one of those, put your hands on your knees and push type of climbs. At this point, I was running with a female participant that had caught up to me and passed me, and I tried to keep up with her for a short while before getting dropped. We came back out to the power line section and this time walked up a long climb along the cut out. It wasn't long before we hit the aid station. I was still feeling good, but it had started to warm up and I needed to top off my water bottle. I left the aid station and enjoyed a wide, forest road for a while. I caught up with another runner, Robert Lewellen. Robert is one of the race directors for a new 50K in Georgia that will take place on the Duncan Ridge trail and the Coosa Back Country trail. It's the Duncan Ridge 50K/30K. That race is going to be a beast! Anyway, I ran with Robert for quite a while. Chatting with him made the time go by and we were making good progress. He decided to take a quick nature break and he told me to run on ahead of him. At this point, I was back on the same trail we had come up earlier but enjoying the descent. One of the Texas runners, Dat, that I had met caught me and passed me. He was looking strong.

Down past the mossy, flatrock, across the road again and down into the start/finish area. As I came in to the aid station, there were a number of spectators waiting around for their runners, but they cheered me on in. That was an appreciated ego boost and I picked up my step after grabbing something quick at the aid station. Only one more loop left and I knew it well by now. We ran along the creek, then up a quick incline to reach more single track that would take us back to the another gradual long climb that we had descended earlier in the day. I walked almost all of this until we hit the top of the ridge. I knew that was the last long one of the day and I was glad to be on the ridge again. I caught up and passed a couple of other runners and soon came up on the steep, rope assisted climb down and I was getting anxious about more yellow jackets. I joined a couple other runners who had bottlenecked on the rope and we made our way down. We went past the area where the yellowjackets had been earlier unscathed. Phew!

We were almost done. The rest of the way back was slightly different than the start earlier that morning. Instead of running back on the gravel road, we were directed off of it and made to run alongside a creek. Up and down short three and four foot little hills along the creek. It was tough on the legs. Ran that for over a mile when we then crossed the creek, the only time we truly got our feet wet on the course. Just a couple hundred more yards and there was the finish. Randy was on the mic and I heard, "Here comes number 24, Javier De Jesus, from Atlanta." I gave him the thumbs up and came through the chute. 3:33:34...good enough to crack the top 50.

I grabbed something to drink and got in the creek with the other runners that had finished before me. It felt really good to cool off in the stream and exchange "war stories" with others. After some time in the water I grabbed a bite to eat and got in line for a massage. Tomorrow was to be another day. The toughest yet of the three. I was looking forward to it.

*Read official race blog and find results and photos for stage two

Friday, June 17, 2011

Rock/Creek Stage Race: Day 1 Raccoon Mountain 06.17.11

Start of today's stage one with Randy Whorton addressing the runners. (Photo Chattanooga Stage Race Facebook page)
For weeks, I have been worried about the recent heat we've been experiencing in the Southeast. Record number of days in the 90's this month of June and even back in May. I was anticipating three days of scorching, humid, energy-draining trail running during the Rock/Creek Chattanooga Stage Races, but day one couldn't have been any better. We woke up to temps in the 60's and overcast, and even when we lined up at the start it was still in the 70's with the occasional brief drizzle. Not perfect, but way better than expected. Add to that, today was the so-called "easy" day with 18 miles of rolling terrain without much technical difficulty or major inclines and we have a winner! That's all in store for us tomorrow, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I've met some great people already. There's about a dozen or so, Tejas trail-runners that are nice as can be and I've also met Tim Waz from Bluffton, SC and owner of Palmetto Running Company (thanks again for the shoes and the shirt, Tim!) We all met in the parking lot, exchanged "good lucks" and lined up at the start. Randy Whorton, the race director, made some announcements and we got started at 8:00am sharp. With only about 500 yards of asphalt to semi-thin the crowd, we bottle necked right away on the single track trail. It took some time to settle an order and even then, it was well over an hour of running before I felt like I had found my spot in the pecking order of things. The trail follows along a dam reservoir with over looks into the valey below. At one point early on, you could look over to our left and see Chattanooga below. You could also look across to the site of tomorrow's stage at Lookout Mountain. The first hour of running was just trying to pull back the reins and not get too fast, but it's hard when you get caught up in the excitement. Once things thinned out, this was harder still. Since the temps were comfortable, I wasn't running out of water and I was still able to maintain a good level hydration. We hit the first aid station and I felt good.

The next few miles went by quick with a small stretch on a gravel jeep road. Normally these stretches get hot, but since it was overcast, we were fine. A couple of guys passed me here, but once we were back on the single track, I stayed with them pretty well. Soon, we hit aid station number two. I try not to spend too much time at the stations. One of the volunteers asked me more than once if I needed my bottle topped off, but I still had more than two-thirds of a bottle and I thought I'd OK. He said, "You sure? It's five miles until the next station." Which made me hesitate, but I decided to go on. Luckily, I didn't have to regret my decision.

From here, we had quite a bit of downhill which was quite a bit of fun and then we hit a section called "the small intestine". And rightly so. It was twisty, windy and covered just a few acres with a few miles of trails. It was in this spaghetti of trails that I took a good spill. My foot caught a root and down I went. I was in a train of runners when it happened and only a couple looked back. I jumped up and caught up with them as quickly as I could. My bib number hung by one safety pin the rest of the race.

Runners started showing some strain and many were dropping back. I did a gut check and asked myself if I was going too fast but I was feeling good and decided to just maintain my pace. I caught up to a couple of the TX runners and soon passed them. Pretty soon, we hit aid station number three.

I didn't stick around. I refilled my bottle, grabbed something to eat and headed out. When I exited, a couple of the guys I had been running with stayed behind. I then also caught up with another runner who had passed me earlier on the gravel road and I soon put distance on him. The rest of the way, I spent it mostly on my own with no one to see ahead of me or behind me. This probably lasted for more than a couple of miles which allowed me to settle into a groove and get my breathing to where it should be. I caught up with Tim and he had decided to ease up since this is really a training weekend for him as he's getting ready for the Arkansas 100 later this year.

Nothing like an ice bath in a trash can.
Things were going well, and I knew there wasn't much left to go. I came upon the race photographer and instead of giving a smooth, strong looking runner to photograph, I almost ate it in front of him. I can't wait to see that one. With about a half mile to go, I came upon another trail runner and when I came up behind him, instead of letting me pass, he picked it up. I thought, "OK, I'll stick with ya." But then we came out onto an ashpalt path and I knew we were almost done. I passed him. I thought he was behind me, but when the finish line was in view, all of a sudden I could feel him trying to sprint by me. For a split second, I thought I'd try to sprint in, but then I thought, "That's stupid. We have two more even longer days still to race. Let this guy go." and I did.

I finished in 2:40 and 38th overall. Not bad, but I hope I didn't cash in all my chips. There's still two more stages. I took an ice bath in a tub and got something to eat. I hung out with other finishers for a while and the gang from Texas and then made my way out. I feel good, but we'll see how it goes tomorrow. Lookout Mountain awaits with lots of climbing and way more technical trails. Until then, happy trails!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Rock/Creek Stage Race Preview

Only four days to go and I'm chopping at the bit to get started at the first stage of this weekend's Rock/Creek Stage Race. It's three days of challenging running on trails in Chattanooga, Tennessee with a couple hundred of my fellow trailrunning nuts. I've run all kinds of long distance races, but I've never had to string three separate consecutive days of it. The concept is very popular in Europe and the good folks at Wild Trails and Rock/Creek thought that it would be fun to host something similar here in the good ole US of A. Thank you Randy and Kris Whorton, the race directors, for adapting the concept here at home!

Each day gets progressively harder. Day one is 18 miles on and around Raccoon Mountain, home of the Scenic City Trail Marathon in May. Day two is 22 miles on the trails at Lookout Mountain and in the Lula Lake Land Trust claiming an elevation gain of about 2,800 ft. Lastly, day three is 20 miles on Signal Mountain and probably the toughest with the first six miles showing absolutely no mercy to the race participants.

Following are the course maps for all three stages and elevation charts for two of the stages:

Day One - Raccoon Mountain, TN - Friday, June 17, 2011

Day Two - Lookout Mountain, TN/GA - Saturday, June 18, 2011

Day Three - Signal Mountain, TN - Sunday, June 19, 2011

Stay tuned to my blog as I'll try to post daily race recaps starting on Friday. If I can figure out a way to record some video, I'll post that as well. In the meantime, check out this promotional video produced by the race organizers:

Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race: 3 Tough Days of Trail Running from Rock/Creek on Vimeo.

Happy trails!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cloudland Canyon Fat Ass 04.23.11

At the top looking down into Cloudland Canyon.

I received an email from Randy Whorton a couple of months ago forwarded by my friend, Roxanne, that described a Fat Ass-style race that was planned for April in Chattanooga. Many of the people addressed in the email are the who's who of ultra running in this area, so it immediately peaked my interest. Randy's the mastermind behind many of the Rock Creek races in Chattanooga and after having personally enjoyed Rock Creek events like the Stump Jump 50K and the Lookout Mountain 50-Miler, I figured I had to check this out. Of course, it didn't hurt when my usual running buddies, Woody and Doug, were also thinking of participating. So we all contacted Randy through Rox and got our names on the list. It's been in ink on my calendar since then.

I love the low-key nature of Fat Ass races and knowing that there were only going to be a handful of runners participating in this run, I was really excited about it. The course was set to start in Cloudland Canyon, a beautiful bluff area in Northwest Georgia, and was to end on the East side of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga at Randy's house.

Bus ride to start.
Woody picked me up at 4:30am that morning and we headed up to Chattanooga, picking up another friend, Kirk, along the way. Unfortunately, Doug had to pull out almost last minute and couldn't come along. We arrived around 7:00am just in time to get on the school bus that Randy and his wife, Kris had rented to transport us all to the start. I met some great people on the bus, a few runners from Huntsville, AL, one guy who also drove up from the Atlanta area and the rest were all from Chattanooga. There were about sixteen of us total. We didn't see Randy because he went ahead an hour earlier to start marking the course. After stopping at Covenant College near the top of Lookout Mountain to pick up a few more runners, it was a short ride to Cloudland Canyon. Driving in, it was hard to see down into the valley due to the fog, but we would get to enjoy the view a little later on our way back on foot.

Cloudland Canyon

If you ever get a chance to visit Cloudland Canyon near Trenton, Georgia, you should take advantage of it. This gorge area is cut out by the Sitton Gulch Creek and it is spectacular. The state park covers a huge area and the Waterfalls Trail that we would hit to start the race, takes you from the bottom of the gorge along Daniels Creek and by two major waterfalls up to the top.

Great group of runners at start.
The bus dropped us off at the trailhead and after some brief announcements by Kris and a couple of quick photos, we headed out with a very discreet, "OK, you guys can go now.", by Kris. Right away, we were on single track surrounded by newly green forest (it is Spring time) and following the creek upwards. About a mile and a half into the run, we climbed the long 600-step stairway to the top. Nothing like steps to warm up your calves! It reminded me of Amicalola Falls in North Georgia and the long stairway there. On the way up, we took in the waterfalls and once at the top, we enjoyed amazing views into the valley below. You can clearly see the layers of limestone and sandstone along the bluff. It must be amazing in the Fall. So far so good.

Getting ready for creek crossing.
At the top, we took a short overlook trail by some cabins and campers and then made our way out of the park and onto a much more rugged trail, the Backcountry Trail. Now the Backcountry Trail is well blazed with orange markings, but it is obviously not well traveled. The further along this trail we got, the more it was covered in dropped leaves, fallen trees and branches, and overgrown with briars and saplings. We made our way down the opposite side from the overlook and eventually came to a creek crossing. It took a few minutes to find a good spot to cross as the current was pretty strong and the water was about knee deep. I'll always praise my Smartwool socks, no matter how soaked they get they never fail. Anyway, once across, we started slowly climbing back up, but still searching out the orange blaze marks on the trees. The trio of Huntsville runners caught up with us at this point and we would stick together for much of the way from this point forward.

A little blood.
The going was slow because of the lack of an obvious trail on the ground. We would run a few paces, hesitate, look around for the next orange blaze and continue, then repeat. Meanwhile the briars were doing a number on everyone's ankles and shins. We followed the pattern for about four or five miles until we came onto another bluff. We started following blue ribbons and would soon learn that we made a wrong turn somewhere along the line. We hadn't seen any of Randy's flour markings for a while, but we didn't realize it until we ran out of blue ribbons to follow and realized that we were literally in the middle of nowhere with no clear trail or markings to follow. Thankfully, I brought my cell phone and dialed Randy. He came on the line and when I explained what we had done, he was puzzled until I told him that we had kept the bluff to our right and he said that we should have kept it on our left instead. Also, we should have never followed the blue ribbons. Oops! So we gathered up the six of us and headed back to try to find where we turned off and hopefully, pick up Randy's flour markings again. On the way back, we picked up to other runners who had made the same mistake we did. Eventually, we came back to the point where we should have gone in the opposite direction. We probably added about two miles to our day and lost about 40-45 minutes taking the detour. Shit happens!

More killer views.
We came upon another great overlook with wonderful views into the valley below. The scenery is simply beautiful and we were all glad to be rewarded for our efforts with it. From there, we came off the trail and onto an asphalt driveway of sorts. We then turned off of that onto a forest road and through some open fields and eventually dumping out onto a highway. We saw a flour marking on the edge of the road and for some reason we turned left onto the road and began to follow it for a while.

Lookout Scenic Highway

We figured out that we were on Highway 189 and it didn't dawn on any of us that Kris and Randy had made no mention of following a road. We ran on the side of the road facing oncoming traffic and did it out in the open sun. Needless to say, this was my least favorite part of the day, but it didn't occur to any of us to check where we were until we had gone about two miles or so down the road. We kept expecting to see some marker telling us to turn into the woods at any moment. Another phone call to Randy, this time he told us that we should have gone straight across the road and that there were five flour markings showing the way. Somehow we had missed it and it was our bad. I didn't really want to run back the two miles and I was sharing the bad news with Woody when one of the Huntsville runners suggested that we stay on the road because it was going to eventually hit Covenant College and we could hop on the Lookout Mountain Trail  and pick up Randy's course from there. All good, but the college was another five or six miles further up the road. Our day of trail running immediately had gained a few miles of asphalt running. Not such a bad thing, but it was clear skies, the sun was out and we were going to miss any water that had been put out for us on the original course. Plus, I was looking forward to revisiting parts of the course from the Lookout Mountain 50-Miler I had done a few months ago which included Nickajack and Lula Lake. Bummer!

View from hangglider launch pad.
There was one highlight running on the road and that was coming upon a handglider launching station from the side of the road. Everything to our left was looking down into Look Valley and there's a drop off a several hundred feet. Handglider newbies and veterans use this launching station to hop off the top and start sailing along the open skies. I tell ya, standing on that launch pad and looking into the valley makes you appreciate that sport. Those guys have some cojones!

Other than that, there's not much to write about for this road running section. We started stringing apart. I ended up running most of the road section with my buddy, Kirk. The girl runner we had picked up earlier at the last detour was picked up by two other runners that had called it a day and hitch hiked back to the college where they had parked there cars and met the bus earlier that morning. Woody and the three Huntsville guys were up ahead and arrived at the college before me and Kirk. We came into the main parking lot at the college, topped off our water bottles and anxiously headed out to find the trailhead for the Lookout Mountain trail.

Lookout Mountain

Woody on Lookout Mtn Trail
I was familiar with this part from the 50-miler race, but even then, we appreciated the help of Mark, a local runner that had started with us that morning but who had also called it a day. He got us on the right trail and it was nice to be off the road. Almost immediately, I felt better now that we had a tree canopy over us again and the trail below our feet. From here to Randy and Kris' house was about ten miles and almost all of it would be downhill. Even though we missed a large section of trail by taking the road, we figured out that we were going to end up with about 31 miles after all. Which made us think that maybe today's course was longer than a 50K and we would later learn this was the case, but more on that later.

Woody and I pulled ahead from Kirk and the Huntsville guys a little bit. The trail along the side of Lookout Mountain is a well traveled single track but it can be a little technical in some spots with plenty of rocks and sharp, sheer drop offs to the left at a couple of spots. We kept running by these huge rock formations and big cliffs with limestone layers on our right. It wasn't long before we started seeing ropes and rock climbing equipment at spots and all we had to do was look up to see climbers enjoying their sport.

Coming down the mountain!
We came to a split in the trail and while we paused to figure out which way to go, the Huntsville guys caught up to us and decided to wait for Kirk who was trailing a little behind. They were debating which way to go but Woody and I decided to take the right trail that continued around the point of Lookout Mountain. They ended up taking the left trail once Kirk caught up to then and they would beat us back to Randy's house that way. Meanwhile, Woody and I made it around the point of Lookout Mountain and started heading down off the mountain ourselves but on the other side. We hit a couple of switchbacks, crossed under a rail line that goes straight up the mountain taking tourists to the top, climbed briefly back up and then descended for good down to a road. We found a stash of water gallon jugs Randy had left the night before and topped off our bottles. I got us to this point from my memory of the Lookout Mountain 50-miler, but from here on we had to check with Randy by phone a few times since we were now ahead of him due to our road detour. With no flour markings to follow, we weren't sure how to finish up the last remaining miles back to his house.

We crossed the road per Randy's instructions and this is where it finally dawned on me that when he says, "It's fairly straight forward from there." What he actually means is, "You are going to bush whack like crazy or make your way through some heavy duty briars or poison ivy." Ha, ha! Man, I think he has a little Dave Horton or Laz in him. Anyway, we ran down what you could barely consider a trail through a bunch of poison ivy until we came upon a slightly more obvious single track, the Glen Falls trail. Once on here, progress was steady again and we came across a really cool waterfall and pool. Woody and I decided to take a break and we took off our shoes and dipped our feet into the greatly alleviating cool water. After a few minutes, we got our shoes back on and continued down the trail. We came out onto a gasline cut out, picked up another trail and finished up the last couple of miles of trail before coming out onto a street that would turn out to be the one that their house was on. Somewhere in that last mile, Woody's Garmin finally died showing 30.6 miles. We figured by the time we got back to the house, we had our 50K in the bag. It took us over seven hours to get it done.

Kris and some of the other runners welcomed us back. We were surprised to see Kirk showered and relaxed, but that's when we found out that the route they took from where we had last seen them was slightly shorter and easier than the way Woody and I had taken. We cracked open some celebratory beers and exchanged some stories with everyone there. We learned that Randy and another runner were still out on the original course and that just about everyone had either taken the road detour by mistake or had cut it short at the college. Kris was super nice to let us use their shower and we hung out for some time on their porch. We were hoping to see Randy return, but we had to get back to Atlanta and had to leave.

All in all, it was a great day of running even though we had that road segment and missed out on a big chunk of trail. We later received an email from Randy explaining that he recalculated the distance and realized that it would have actually been more like a 60K than a 50K, if we had all run the intended route. Oh well, Woody and I were happy with our 31 miles.  We'll be back next year to get it done right.

My most sincere gratitude to our wonderful hosts, Randy and Kris. Randy's "straight forward" trail marking and race course were anything, but boring. I also have to put in a nod to our Huntsville running friends, Eric, Rob and Blake, and of course, my running mates, Woody and Kirk. I'm looking forward to doing it again.

Randy Whorton is also the Executive Director of Wild Trails, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization with a mission to promote the use, protection and expansion of trails in greater Chattanooga. If you'd like to learn more about Wild Trails and how you can support this great cause, check out: www.wildtrails.org.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Duncan Ridge Trail "Fun Run" 03.09.11

Doug and Woody at the Benton McKaye
and Duncan Ridge trail split.
I started this blog because more than races, I wanted to document trail runs done either alone or with friends that pushed the envelope of just the typical trail run. I still have a long way to go to call myself a true trail runner. There are so many trail runners out West that have access to some of the most rugged climbing, toughest terrain or spectacular scenery in the US. I'll probably never get to experience what they do out there, but I can try. Here in the Southeast, we do have our share of amazing mountain trails. Sure, they're not at 10,000+ feet of elevation, but the grade and the level of technical difficulty is right up there with the best (uh, or worst) of them. A few days ago, I "ran" one of the toughest with two of my regular trail running mates, Doug and Woody. We did the Duncan Ridge Trail in North Georgia.

The Duncan Ridge Trail is a 35+ mile trail that starts near Long Creek at a point where the Appalachian Trail and the Benton McKaye Trail intersect. In fact, it shares the same trail with the Benton McKaye for several miles. It crosses the Toccoa River on a 260 foot suspension bridge and then also crosses state hwy. 60. From there, it goes East where it eventually splits off from the Benton McKaye and then goes along a ridge of several mountain tops and gaps including Coosa Bald. It then connects with the Coosa Backcountry Trail, crosses hwy. 180 at Wolfpen Gap, climbs Slaughter Mountain and finally dead ends into the Appalachian Trail again just South of Blood Mountain. Along the way, it climbs a combined 13,000+ feet with elevation changes between 1,850 ft. and 4,338 ft.

I've had this trail run on my checklist for some time and I was excited that we had finally decided to tackle it. The plan was that we would leave Atlanta early at 4:30am with the hope that we would be on the trail no later than 9:00am. Since this was going to be a point-to-point, we had to take two cars, park one at the base of Blood Mountain near Vogel State Park and then take the other car to Three Forks where the Duncan Ridge Trail started. We managed to make it to the Byron Reese parking lot at the base of Blood Mountain a little after 7:00am. It was raining hard at the time and I would be lying if I said that the rain wasn't concerning. After a quick exchange of gear, we all piled into my Forrester and made our way to Three Forks. To get there, we had to travel several miles of forest service roads, but we finally made it and we were on the trail at about 8:45am. It was raining like crazy.

Crossing the bridge over Toccoa River
Once on the trail, it wasn't long before we hit our first climb of the day. This was to become an all too familiar pattern. I had a hard time in that first hour of running. Maybe I got my heart rate up too fast, but Woody and Doug quickly put a gap on me. It wasn't until they waited for me at the top of the second climb that I was able to get a steady rhythm. The trail was single track and it was saturated. Luckily, it is not well-traveled trail this time of year, so footing wasn't too bad. A few miles in, we hit a long, very runnable (one of the only stretches on the whole trail) section that eventually went down into the valley with the Toccoa River flowing through it. When we made it to the river, we had to take a few pics on the bridge and we grabbed a quick bite. The bridge was built by the Army Corps of Engineers and it was fun to cross. With all the rain, the river was clearly well above its usual water level with lots of white water. This was to be the lowest elevation point on the trail run.

We crossed the bridge and started climbing again. It wasn't too bad, but it was steady. Enough to make us walk for much of the way. We hit a ridgeline for a short bit, then began coming down again. We were surprised to see a couple of cabins and trailers visible from the trail, but soon realized that it was due to being near highway 60 and Suches, GA. We came out on to the road with close to 12 miles on our legs. I don't recall exactly how long it took us to get to this point, but I do know that it would be the quickest 12 miles of the day. What was ahead was going to test our mettle for sure. Although from this point forward, we would enjoy drier conditions with the worst of the rain past us.

Immediately after crossing highway 60, the trail is straight up towards the top of Rhodes Mountain. Who ever blazed this trail did not believe in switch backs. Over and over for the next 17 miles, we would have to go straight up many climbs. The grade at times so bad, that we had to put our hand on our knee and push, just to take the next step. "Running" is loosely defined when talking about trail running the rest of the way. Because even though there was a downhill after every summit, it was the type of descending that made your quads scream with pain.

Crispy fried trail
About four or five miles in, the Benton McKaye Trail split off and we headed east away from it, still going along a ridge with steep inclines and descents. Soon we would pass Mulky Gap and here's where the terrain became interesting. Apparently, there had been a forest fire in the area not too long ago and we ran through a black, charred forest for several miles. Everything on both sides of the trail was just black and sooty. The previous autumn's leaves were all gone and little was untouched by the fire. I don't know when it happened, but at times you could still smell the burnt vegetation all around us.

In this part of the run, we came across a strange knot in a tree that looked like a face. Woody had run much of this trail previously and had alerted us that it was a strange site. We nicknamed it "treeface". You can clearly see two eyes, a nose and a flat smile. Bizarre! We left "treeface" behind and we would soon hit the worst of the day's climbs. Doug, who was cranking along with Woody some paces ahead of me, all of a sudden hit the wall. He let me go in front of him and for the next several miles and climbs, I would be turning back to cheer him on. Meanwhile, I was hitting a wall of my own. At a point where the trail met up with forest road 39, we took a moment to gather ourselves and eat something. I had brought peanut butter and honey sandwiches on cinnamon raisin whole wheat bread. Delish! And just what I needed. What was coming would need every extra calorie I could put into my body.

Doug and me with "treeface"
We climbed Wildcat Knob thinking it was Coosa Bald, but it wasn't. I'm not exaggerating when I describe this climb as straight up. Seriously steep climb! Once over the top, we were hoping to see the connection with the Coosa Backcountry Trail which would have meant we had gone over Coosa Bald, but there was no trail connection and after a short stint on a saddle ridge, we did begin the climb to Coosa Bald. Holy shit! This one was rough. Woody was doing fine, but this climb broke me and Doug. We were both seriously struggling. It seem to never end. It just kept going up and up. Remember, we had already done our share of climbing all day, so this one took it out of us. We thought we'd never get to the top. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally saw the granite outcroppings that mark the top of Coosa Bald (4,280 ft.) We didn't stop to enjoy it. We just wanted to get over it and hook up with the Coosa Backcountry Trail knowing that we had a mile or two of easier downhill running down to Wolf Pen Gap where we had left a gallon jug of water earlier that morning when we drove by. The run down allowed Doug and I to get our strength back some what. We arrived into Wolf Pen Gap and sat down to refill our bottles and grab another bite. We were tired. 30 miles into it and we knew we had one last doozy of a climb up to just below the summit of Slaughter Mountain and then an easier section leading up to Blood Mountain.

When we started the day, we gave ourselves eight hours to finish the entire run, but we realized this was not going to be the case. Sitting at Wolf Pen Gap, we were already eight hours in. We gathered our stuff, threw our hydration packs back on and started the climb to Slaughter Mountain. From Wolf Pen Gap, we would go about 1,000 feet again straight up with a couple of small switchbacks. Some where on this climb, Woody noticed that his Garmin died. The elevation chart you see on this page is of the run up until this point. Click here to view what the Garmin captured to this point.

Top of Blood Mountain
Up, up and up until we leveled off some what and soon the trail broke off from the Coosa Backcountry Trail. We knew there wasn't much left until it hit the Appalachian Trail again. Much of the jokes and laughter had stopped much earlier. At this point, we were just wanting to get up to Blood Mountain and down the other side to the car as quickly as possible. Also for the first time, we realized that we might have to run in the dark before we made it to the car. We came upon the Appalachian Trail unceremoniously. We put the Duncan Ridge Trail behind us and the trail on the AT changed to a rockier single track than what we had been running on all day. The approach to the Blood Mountain summit from the southside is much tamer than from the northside. It wasn't long before we reached the stone shelter built back in the 1930's and then soon after we made it to the top at 4,458 feet. The tallest point of the day and also tallest point of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. The fog and clouds were thick and visibility was poor at the top. There wasn't much to see unfortunately.

We gladly began the descent but it was to be the hardest descent of the whole day. The descents earlier in the day were steep, but the trail wasn't technical in the sense that you didn't have to pick up your feet much. However, the descent off Blood Mountain was not only steep, but you had to step down from large rocks and our legs were pretty chewed up. Adding to this was the mud and overflowing creek water from the rains earlier that morning. Progress was slow which was killing us because we were ready to get it done. It was slowly becoming dark too.

I had brought a couple of headlamps, which I let Woody use one of them. Except he wasn't having trouble with the dark and soon got ahead of me and Doug. When we hit the side trail that led to the Byron Reese parking lot we were thrilled. This was it, the last mile of the day and finally some runable trail. The rain had started again and we did cross some creeks on the way down to the parking lot. One switchback, then another, and we were getting excited again. Finally, we heard Woody "woot!" and we knew were back at the car almost 36 miles later and countless feet of climbing and descending. Ten and a half hours of the
Duncan Ridge Trail left a mark on us.

Doug had brought a cooler with some of his home brewed lager. We toasted, drank and busily changed into drier clothes. Here's my Dailymile post from that evening:

"Epic. Is that too strong a word? Memorable. OK, that's more appropriate. Wow! What a day? Woody, Doug and I ran the Duncan Ridge trail in N. Georgia. "Run" is loosely defined term here. It was more like run/hike/crawl. Mother nature handed it to us with rain, wind and fog. The DR trail is a beast of a trail. We hit insane climbs (13,000+ ft.) and quad-busting downhills. It took us a lot longer than intended, but we got it done. Now we are on our way to a grande Mexican meal and a cold one."

These types of runs is why I started this blog. Thanks to my running mates, Woody and Doug, for another trail adventure to remember.