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!

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.