Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lookout 50 run or not to run

December 18 was the Lookout 50 mile trail race. Although I live in Chattanooga, I had never done this home town race. I am familiar with most of the course because we run on the trails frequently, but the portion of the race that goes through Lula Lake to Nickajack was new to me. When the alarm clock went off on Saturday morning, I was less than enthusiastic about getting up. I am not an early morning person but I usually feel a bit more perky on race mornings than I did. For whatever reason, my head just was not in it. Nevertheless, I made the drive up to Covenant College where the race starts and finishes. It was still dark outside and very cold. On the positive side, however, it was not raining as it had the past two years during the race. Unfortunately, my mood had not gotten any better by the time I arrived at the start, and I was seriously contemplating driving straight back home and going back to bed. I literally sat in my car staring at my running shorts trying to decide if I wanted to change into them and run or just go home. I would tell myself, "You are going to run" only to change my mind. This indecision went on until 7:10. FYI the race started at 7:30. Finally, I forced myself to get my running clothes on and step out into the cold. After making a quick stop at the bathroom, it was time to line up for the start. The sun started to come up, and I wouldn't say that I was totally ready to run, but I was at least no longer dreading it as I had been only moments before.
Dreama and I started off together down the road for a short time before making our way onto the single track that leads to the Bluff trail. It was still pretty congested, and this segment of trail is technical, not to mention being on the side of a cliff, which minimizes the opportunity to pass. Mentally, I was finally starting to come around and was happy to have made the decision to run rather than return to bed. Because of the recent rain and the fact that it was still below freezing outside, the bluff was covered with icicles that formed along rocks. It was absolutely gorgeous. To our left, you could see the view of the city below. This is one of the prettiest trails in the area. After passing Sunset Rock, runners continue to Point Park and go down the Mountain Beautiful Trail before turning onto the Hardy Trail which is a gravel road that leads to Cravens house and the first aid station at mile 8. This aid station was a bit crowded and because it was so cold outside, I had not used much of my gatorade out of my handheld. Therefore, I just ran through hoping to make up some time and get away from some of the congestion.
From Craven's house, we ran down another jeep road and onto the Guild trail before making a hard left onto the Jura trail. This is a really pretty section on single track that leads to the Gum Springs trail which descends very steeply towards the Nature Center. Because Covenant college is at the top of Lookout Mountain and the nature center is at the bottom, we had been running a general downhill for the better part of 4-5 miles by the time we hit the next aid station where I saw Wendy and Kris. It just so happened that another trail race was taking place at the nature center, using some of the same trails as the Lookout 50 miler, so several sentries had to direct people and make sure they didn't go off course. I saw Tyler and Mary here. Tyler said that the three lead women were about 10 minutes ahead, so I really had no expectations of seeing them at all. We ran along the river at the bottom for a bit before turning on to the Blue Beaver trail to begin our LONG 5 mile ascent back up to Covenant College. I told myself before the race that I was going to take the climb really easy because the last thing I needed to do was use a ton of energy so early in the race. Thankfully, I met up with Dana Overton, Michael Scherzer, and Ryan Muelmans around this point, and we talked a bit to make the first part of the climb pass by rather quickly. After a mile or so, we popped out onto the Skyuka trail which is very rolling but runnable for sure. Once you reach Skyuka Springs, the real beast of the climb begins as it is 3 miles of non stop uphill to Covenant. I have done this segment of trail a million time as part of the loop we call "Big Daddy" and no matter how many times you do it, it never gets easy. The first mile is definitely the worst, so I tried to break the climb into 3 sections in hopes that it would help me mentally. Ryan, Michael, and I were still together and run/walked the first part in pretty good time. I was feeling pretty good. I think knowing this part of the course was a real advantage. Before too much longer, the second mile was over, and we were back on the Bluff with only about a mile left to the top. Once you get to Jackson Spring, runners make a loop around a small lake by Covenant and then retrace their steps on the road back to the start which is also the 22ish mile aid station.
At this stop, I saw my Aunt Caroline who came out to watch as well as Vikena and her son, George, who was ringing a cowbell. He is adorable and seeing him ring the cowbell and cheering was a big mental boost. Caroline asked if I needed anything and said she would let my dad, who was working the Nickajack aid station, know how I was doing. After briefly saying hi to her and refilling my bottle, I headed off toward Lula Lake. The next mile or two of trail was very narrow and looked like it was new trail. It was really pretty, and I enjoyed being able to run somewhere I had not been. We then popped out in an open powerline area and ran along a dirt/clay road for a bit. I was pretty muddy, and this was the sticky kind of mud that stays on your shoes, making them feel like weights. Needless to say, I was more than happy to get off this road and back on the single track to Lula Lake. It is a general downhill for about two mile to the aid station at Lula Lake. Because there were so many leaves down, the trail was hard to follow at times, so I had to keep looking for the yellow flags marking the trail. After crossing a road and making a final descent, I came to the aid station where Dawson Wheeler was volunteering.
Dawson directed me toward a wooden bridge crossing a creek and leading back on to some single track. He pointed and said "Go over the bridge and through the woods" in a sing song voice which made me laugh and I set off in good spirits. From here, it is 6 miles to the Long Branch/Nickajack aid station. We ran along some trail that looked familiar to me from the Stage race that is here in the summer but it wasn't until I came out onto a gravel road leading up to Lula Falls that I really knew where I was. This realization was both good and bad. It was nice to have a general idea of my whereabouts but I also now knew that a nasty climb was just ahead. The falls are stunning with emerald colored water in the pool below and a good amount of water in the waterfall. After running down the road for maybe a half mile, the course makes a hard right onto this trail that is literally cut straight up the mountain. It is so steep that they put several ropes for runners to use to pull themselves up with. Once at the top, however, you aren't done climbing as it is a gradual uphill along the bluff for another mile or so. It was around here that I saw Natalie and Roxanned and got to chat with them for a bit. We then turned back and ran down to some very technical single track that looked like it had just recently been made into a trail. It followed a creek and was very reminiscent of a rainforest with lushy green plants everywhere. I remember thinking how pretty this part was but wishing that it was a bit wider so you could stride out more. We then turned uphill and climbed out to Nickajack road which you run on to the aid station. I was really looking forward to seeing my dad here and getting some of the grilled cheese sandwiches they had promised would be waiting here. Chad was manning the stove and quickly offered me some grilled cheese which did not disappoint. My dad asked how i was doing, refilled my bottle with gatorade and ran with me for a bit up the hill where we started a 4.5 mile loop.
After saying bye to my dad, I started out on this loop which was totally new to me. In fact, I think most of this section was pretty new in general. At first, the trail runs around a small lake with several houses before going into the woods. I felt like we were just winding around and around. It was very rolling and would climb up before descending to a creek and climbing right back up. Near the end of the loop, we merged back in with the Nickajack connector trail which I have run on before. When I realized where I was and knew that it was not far at all back to the aid station, I was relieved. I didn't need anything here, so I just checked in and made my way back towards Lula Lake the way I came. This was mile 38.5, and runners were told to make sure they had a headlamp here in case it got dark before they finished. I looked at my watch for the first time all day to see what time it was. I think it was like 2:15, so I decided not to pick up a light because I felt pretty sure I could make it the last 11.5 miles before dark. My dad ran with me down the road for a little while just to talk some and offer encouragement. It really helps to see familiar faces during a race, and I am very thankful that he was there. He also told me that Keving and Lance were doing well and that Leslie and Yoli were on the loop looking strong.
From this point, runners retrace their steps back to Lula Lake. I got to see some runners making there way toward Nickajack, including Chris and Rob. It's always cool to see friends out on the trail, and even runners you don't know because a simple smile and good job coming from anyone can do wonders for your spirits. If going up the trail with the rope was hard, going down it was just as hard, if not worse. It was all I could do to not lose all control and going head over heals down the whole thing. At the bottom, however, I got a second look at the falls. If you have not been here, it really is spectacular. Finally, after what seemed like much longer than on the way out, I reached the little bridge and the aid station. It's only about 4ish miles back to Covenant and the finish, so I was really starting to anticipate being done. Unfortunately, it's also mostly uphill, and running uphill on legs that have already run 46 miles is not exactly pleasant. To add to it, as I was leaving the aid station, I saw a female runner that I caught up to on the loop at Nickajack come in right behind me. She was looking really strong, and I thought she would catch me for sure. I have a pretty competitive streak in me and hate getting passed late in races. Early on when everyone is still settling into their pace is one thing, but after this long, it's just different :).
I tried to push it a little bit on the initial climb up to the road crossing. For whatever reason, I think I was expecting this section to be a lot worse than it actually was. Yes, it is mostly uphill, but it really isn't that steep except for a few parts, and there are some flat areas. I just kept trying to make myself run, however slow it probably was, and power walk the steep sections when I had to. After going through the wooded portion of trail that was covered in leaves, we popped back out onto the sticky mud road where my shoes again collected what seemed like 5 pounds of mud. Once again, I was relieved to enter back onto single track. This was the newish segment of trail that marks the last mile or so back to Covenant. I was smelling the barn at this point and just really wanting to be done. When I heard my dad yelling, I knew it had to be close. He said the finish was only about a quarter of a mile. I popped out onto the pavement and saw Byron, a great guy who I seem to see at almost every race. We ran together to the finish where I saw Mark, Wendy, Tyler, Mary, Caroline, Dee, and a bunch of others I'm forgetting.
It was still very cold, especially on top of the mountain where you are exposed, so we huddled around the fire talking for a few minutes. After changing clothes, my dad, Caroline, and I headed to get dinner. Overall, the day started out less than desirable with my having some serious motivational problems but it ended up being a really fun day. The course is beautiful, and I had a great time. All the volunteers worked so hard in the freezing cold to tend to our every needs, and I am truly blessed to have the opportunity to do these races.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Pine Mountain 40 mile trail race

So it's less than a month since Pinhoti 100, and I am supposed to run the Pine Mountain 40 mile trail race. I had signed up for it quite a bit in advance because they cap the race at 150 runners and it always fills up quick. I ran this race two years ago and loved it. The GUTS crew always does an awesome job putting on races, so I was eager to come back. However, in the days leading up to the race, I was not sure how recovered I was. Except for a 17 mile training run the weekend before, I had not done any runs over about 12 miles since Pinhoti, so I had no idea how my legs would feel midway through the race, much less at the end. I decided to just give it a go and run how I felt. If I felt good, I would push it a little, but if not, I planned on just enjoying the day. This really helped to relax me and remove any pressure I might put on myself to run well.
Because we had a basketball game Saturday afternoon, I had to wait until after to leave for the race on Sunday. I met up with my dad, Dreama, and Shane to drive to Pine Mountain. We got to the hotel about 9:30 or so and didn't waste much time before going to bed. The race starts at 7am, making for an early wake up. The alarm went off at 5am, and after a quick breakfast, we drove to the race start in FDR state park. It was still pitch black dark and freezing cold outside when we arrived to check in and pick up our packets. Thankfully, there is a cabing where runners can hang out until just before the start.
About ten til 7, we were all told to head outside and up to the top of the dam where the race would begin. I kept my huge jacket and sweat pants on until the last minute before handing them to my dad. Race director Sarah Tynes said "Go" and the group of 150 or so runners set off along the road for about 400 yards before hitting the single track. It was still dark, so everyone had a headlamp, but because we were so close together for the first few minutes, I never even turned mine on. I went out moderately hard to try to get a decent position before entering the trail where it is really hard to pass. It was still frigid outside with strong gusts that chilled you to the bone. The forecast didn't look too bright either as the high was only going to be about 40 with a wind advisory and overcast skies all day. Oh well, at least I was moving enough to stay pretty warm, except for my hands which stayed numb for the duration.
I felt pretty good early on and ran with Shane and Dreama for the first bit. The trail is flat for the first 3 or so miles before climbing up to a road crossing. I think this one was manned but the others were not, so you had to pay close attention. After crossing, we ran along a gorgeous bluff overlooking the city below. The sun was rising and coloring the clouds all sorts of beautiful colors. Although I really wanted to look, the trail here was treacherously rocky, and I knew that if I took my eyes off it for long, I would surely bust it. For the most part, the course is very rolling. You climb a bit then descend again before long at all. It is very runnable but also deceptively hard because there are no extended flat sections. Also, the leaves were THICK to say the least. At times I swear they were at least a foot deep. You couldn't see anything below, so the only thing to do was just run and hope for the best. I don't know how many times I rolled my ankle on some hidden rock or root. When it wasn't totally covered in leaves, the trail was often like a small boulder field, very technical. There were also some really nice sections of soft pine needle covered trail that is a runner's dream.
I came through the first aid station at around mile 6 feeling good. I still had water and didn't need any food, so I just said hi to my dad and kept moving. Runners were still pretty close together, so I wanted to keep moving until we spread out a bit. The next aid station was in 5 miles, and I planned on refilling my handheld then. This section was rolling and leaf covered like the rest. At one point the trail got hard to follow due to all the leaves and I had to stop and look for the white tape used to mark the course. When Shane and I got to the 2nd aid station, my dad helped me refill with gatorade, and I was off again in no time. The GUTS people do an outstanding job at aid stations. Volunteers are always helpful and encouraging and have great food. I don't remember much about the next couple of sections other than it was a lot of up and down, a lot of rocks, but absolutely gorgeous.
I was still feeling pretty good when I got to around mile 19 at an aid station manned by Jeff Bryan and some other familiar faces. It was nice to see him again and here all the encouragement. He told me it was about 4 miles to the next aid station and that this section had 11 creek crossings. "Surely not," I thought to myself as I headed out thinking they must be exaggerating. Well it took about two miles before I realized that they were dead serious. This 4 mile stretch was probably the prettiest as it passes by several waterfalls that had a significant amount of water in them due to recent rain. However, you do cross over the same creek 11 times. It makes for pretty slow going, and I was starting to get a little down and could feel the miles in my legs. The aid station at mile 23 couldn't have come at a better time. Tom Wilson was there making grilled cheese sandwiches were amazing. Seeing everyone and eating some real food really lifted my spirits, and I set off on my way back to the same aid station I had come from at mile 19. The course is essentially an out and back with a slightly shorter route on the way back, so you hit most aid stations twice. I got to see several runners making their way out.
After passing through this aid station, I think runners take a different trail for a few miles before rejoining the blue blazed Pine Mountain trail. About mile 30, I was really getting tired. My legs did not like the uphills, and my mind was doing it's best to put me in a bad mood. I had run most of the day alone, but was now with two other guys who would leap frog me several times before ultimately pulling ahead. It was also around here that this really young looking boy blew past me like I was standing still. I asked him what on earth he was doing behind me and he replied that he had been running with a friend who decided to drop, so he figured he would pick up the pace a little. I swear he looked so fresh you would have thought the race just started. At one of the aid stations, my dad told me that the lead woman had taken a pretty nasty fall and hit her head. She was experiencing some signs of a concussion, and thus made the smart decision to stop. I asked if she was okay and he said he thought so, but it made me realize just how costly a bad fall on these rocky trails could be.
My dad said he may not see me at the next aid station, so I told him I hoped to see him at mile 35 and kept plodding along. For some reason, I didn't eat anything here and was absolutely starving and on the verge of totally bonking when I hit the mile 35ish aid station. Thankfully, they had some delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies which I gladly helped myself to. From here, runners have 2.9 miles to the last water only stop and then another 2.8 or so to the finish. I was still feeling kind of low when I met up with a man and started talking. His name was Ken and I found out that he is a history teacher in Alabama. I am planning on teaching, so it gave us something to talk about and pass the time. He said he wanted to beat 7:51 and asked if he thought we could do it. I asked him what our time was so far and after he said it was around 7:08 I replied that we should have no problem because we had gone a mile or so from the 35 aid station. For whatever reason, this gave me a goal to work toward, and I was able to pick up the pace a bit for the first time in a while. The 2.9 miles to the water stop are pretting rolling, but we ran fairly strong.
Once you hit this last stop, it's pretty much flat or downhill to the finish. I started pushing pretty hard now just wanting to be finished. Before I knew it, I heard my dad yelling and knew the finish had to be close. He said it was a little over a mile, and I started running about as hard as I could without totally blowing up. He ran with me and we passed two or three people in the last mile or so. I say "or so" because I'm pretty sure his estimate was a bit off. It was more like 1.5 miles but there is nothing I could do about it. Finally, I could see cars off in the distance and a clearing in the trees. I ran the last stretch to the finish followed closely by my new friend Ken, and we crossed in around 7:34, well under his goal of 7:51.
Overall, it was a good day. I definitely didn't feel 100% recovered but I also didn't feel horrible. The trail was prettier than I remembered but also more hilly than I remembered. I met the girl who won and set a course record by 17 minutes! As it turned out, she lives very close to me. Because it was still miserably cold outside, I quickly went in to the cabin to change clothes and get something to drink. Very shortly after doing so, Dreama came in followed by Shane. We chatted with some folks for a bit before heading home. I had a great time at this race and would definitely recommend it for anyone who hasn't tried it. I would also say be prepared to fall several times. It seemed like half the runners who came in had bloody, busted up knees, elbows, or even chins from taking a spill or two or five out on the trail. Nevertheless, they all had a smile on their face and no regrets for running a tough but rewarding race.