Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mystery Mountain Marathon 10/10/10 (Race Report)

On October 10, 2010, I completed the Mystery Mountain Marathon with a finish time of 7:21:08.

Photo courtesy of Russ Johnson
Mystery Mountain Marathon, a trail race sponsored by GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society), takes place on the strenuously hilly terrain of Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth, Georgia.  The race takes its name from an 855-foot-long rock wall of unknown origin that runs along the top of the highest part of Fort Mountain.  The wall, thought to have been built by Native Americans as a fortification or for ceremonial purposes, is a scenic highlight of this course when runners pass by it shortly after the first aid station.

Mystery Mountain Marathon features a full marathon and a 12-mile option.  For the first 11 miles of the course, the marathoners and 12-mile racers both run along the Gahuti Trail that circles the inner perimeter of the park.  After 11 miles, the marathon runners separate from the 12-mile runners to begin the 301 Loop, a mountain bike course that circles the outer perimeter before returning to the start/finish area.  This trail marathon has over 8,500 feet of elevation, including a grueling uphill climb at mile 20 that ascends 1,300 feet in just over two miles.  The downhill portions of Mystery Mountain Marathon are equally rugged, though, and one sharp 1,200-foot descent at mile 12 is covered with loose rocks that can be unforgiving to a careless runner.

Last year, I completed Mystery Mountain Marathon in 6:18:01.  The 2009 marathon was my first race of the season and my legs were fresh after taking the entire summer off from racing.  The temperature at last year's race reached a high of 68 degrees and runners benefited from a mostly overcast morning.  I finished the race in good spirits, despite having earned two bloody leg wounds from brushing fallen tree branches during the run.  By contrast, I participated in this year's event after completing the Long Cane 55 Mile race on September 5 and completing StumpJump 50K on October 2, one week before this race.  The weather was sunny throughout the day at this year's Mystery Mountain Marathon and the 82-degree temperature high took an unexpected toll on participants.

Mystery Mountain Marathon is a brutally difficult event.  Fortunately, it is also the most fun event of the year. After seeing the course elevation map and reading the descriptions of the terrain, one would be pressed to imagine having fun at this race, but Mystery Mountain Marathon, in its third year, is still one of the best kept secrets for trail runners and everyone goes home with happy memories that last longer than the bruises and soreness.  The GUTS group always goes above and beyond the call of duty to sponsor challenging events with a focus on safety.  Kim Pike, in her first year as the Mystery Mountain Marathon race director, utilized the necessary runner input to bring the best out of this trail marathon.  The aid station volunteers, most of whom were accomplished trail runners and ultrarunners, seemed to know exactly what each runner needed every step along the way.   Even during my roughest moments at this year's race, there was never any doubt in my mind that I would reach the finish line and that I would be in good hands for the entire time.  There is just something about Mystery Mountain Marathon that is synonymous with extreme fun and I can always find something to be amused about along the way, even when I am at the point of exhaustion.

The fun memories from my experience at last year's Mystery Mountain Marathon came to mind when I briefly considered sitting the race out this year.  To gauge my preparedness for my first attempt at a 100-mile ultramarathon in February of 2011, I scheduled three big trail races back to back for the first three October weekends this year. I signed up for StumpJump 50K on October 2, Mystery Mountain Marathon on October 10, and The North Face Endurance 50 Mile on October 16.  In recent weeks, I had questioned the wisdom of scheduling these three races back to back and had repeatedly sought the advice of veteran ultrarunners.  A few weeks ago, I told Kim that I was thinking of backing out of Mystery Mountain Marathon and, instead, scaling back to the 12-miler or volunteering at one of the race aid stations, so that I could recover adequately from StumpJump 50K and then arrive at The North Face Endurance 50 Mile in better condition.   As I pondered my race schedule and goals, however, I remembered having a blast at last year's Mystery Mountain Marathon and decided that, since I got into this sport in the first place to have fun, I really did not want to pass up on the full marathon at this year's event.  I resolved to stick to my schedule, but not to have a time goal in mind and not to push myself to beat last year's finish time.  This was Mystery Mountain Marathon, the most demanding trail marathon around, and I just could not miss out.

On the morning of the race, I woke up at 3:00 AM, dressed, and drove two hours north to Fort Mountain State Park.   I was in the middle to final stages of a head cold that I picked up at my workplace, so I had to bring tissues in the truck to wipe my runny nose on occasion.  The timing of a cold could have been better, but I have found in the past that a head cold does not interfere with exercise and that it's best to just rub some dirt on it and keep running until I reach the other end of the cold.  If I had come down with a chest cold, I would have been more cautious and taken the weekend off.  I went with conventional medical running wisdom that cold symptoms below the neck require time off, while cold symptoms above the neck do not compromise running performance.  The cold symptoms had already improved when I arrived at Fort Mountain State Park, but I still washed my hands as often as possible near others until the race start.

Photo courtesy of Russ Johnson
At the start area, I picked up my race packet and enjoyed seeing several trail running friends, many of whom had won ultramarathons and trail races during the past year.   The athletic prowess and speed of fellow GUTS runners never ceases to amaze me and I knew that I would witness some extraordinary performances at this race from my perspective at the back of the pack.

For this race, I wore the same pair of Montrail Hardrock trail shoes that had served me well at StumpJump 50K the previous week.  While the Mystery Mountain Marathon has a less technical course overall, I knew that I would be thankful for the rock plate protection on the soles of the Hardrocks during the rocky descents of this race.   Since my strategy of wearing two pairs of Balega socks had paid off well at StumpJump 50K and resulted in no blisters on my feet, I doubled up the socks for this week's race as well after using Kinesio tape on a few tender areas on my toes and putting baby powder on my feet.  I wore the same Camelbak Rogue 70-ounce hydration pack, because I've really grown to prefer this pack over handheld water bottles and because I remembered one demanding stretch from last year's Mystery Mountain Marathon that covered six miles of hilly terrain between aid stations.  In one compartment of the Camelbak Rogue, I kept Vaseline, moist-wipe toilet paper, and Band-Aids.  In the lower compartment that I could assess by reaching behind me, I kept Crank e-Gels and watermelon flavored Sports Beans, with the intent of eating one or the other every half hour to ensure that, along with the aid station food, I was consuming 300-400 calories every hour from the beginning of the race.  As always during my long runs, I wore Under Armour compression shorts under my regular running shorts.  I also wore Zensah compression leg sleeves, because I had only recently healed from a shin injury that I suffered at Long Cane 55 Mile the previous month.  In one pocket of my running shorts, I kept a pouch with S-Caps, with the intent of taking one S-Cap each hour.

I knew that I would not be at my best at Mystery Mountain Marathon, because this was my first time competing in a long distance race just one week after the last.   I had recovered well from StumpJump 50K, but my quad muscles were still sore from that race.  This was part of my October plan to push the envelope of my physical endurance by signing up for three back to back races, so I took that into consideration when dispensing of any particular time goals.   On the bright side, my weight loss had continued during the week after StumpJump 50K, but at a safe speed that would not sap my energy level during Mystery Mountain Marathon.  I had initially planned to avoid weighing on the scales during the weeks of these October races, because, if I happened to gain a pound or two during recovery, I did not want that disappointment to screw up my head and affect my confidence at the start of each race.  On the morning before Mystery Mountain Marathon, however, curiosity got the best of me and I weighed on my gym scales before breakfast, surprised and happy to find that I had lost another pound during my StumpJump 50K recovery week to bring my total weight loss to 55 pounds.

Mystery Mountain Marathon started with an easy mile around a campground lake, where I fell into a relaxed pace behind the faster runners as I joked around with others and talked about the challenges ahead.  The first few miles of this race have a “calm before the storm” feel to them and I used this opportunity to get the blood flowing into my legs after a week of recovery.  Many runners have taken wrong turns on this early part of the course and accidentally gone around the lake twice, but the course was marked well at each turn with colored ribbons tied to trees.

Photo courtesy of GUTS
I was doing a lot of nonstop running in the first few miles, but still took care to drink water occasionally from my Camelbak bite valve.  The second mile of the race gave an early preview of some beautiful scenery, as we ran along a ledge on the Gahuti trail after a rocky creek crossing.  One runner near me pointed out how high we were up on the trail compared to the landscape below.  I took a quick second of attention away from the trail to look at the treetops below, knowing that I would be running all the way to the bottom of the mountain and climbing back up later on.   I fell in with a group of runners and talked with one woman who had worked an aid station at the StumpJump 50K race.   Over the next few miles, I would see most of these runners again and again as we passed one another on the downhills and uphills.

We started the first of many long climbs during the third mile of the race as we made our way up to the first aid station.  Although this first big hill was a mere speck of what was to come later on, I settled into a fast power-walk and passed a handful of other runners.  I realized that I had run more up to this point of the race than I had for last year's Mystery Mountain Marathon, and took that as a good sign that I had a chance to finish this race with a faster time.  With the help of Desiree, an aid station volunteer, I refilled my Camelbak, ate a piece of banana, and began a fast climb to the Fort Mountain overlook.

The Fort Mountain overlook is situated near the highest point of the mountain and is a popular place for runners with cameras to take the side trip down the stairwell to take photos of the surrounding mountains and miles of landscape below.  Instead of venturing out to the overlook, however, I simply followed the race markings and stayed on course to ascend a short stairway and run around the perimeter of the mountain top.  As I climbed a steep 150-foot hill on the other side of the mountain top perimeter trail, I passed by Graham, a friend with whom I had run at StumpJump 50K and several previous races.  Graham was competing in the Mystery Mountain Marathon 12-Mile race and was in good spirits as he conserved energy on the hill.  At the very top of Fort Mountain, as I began to run down a series of stone stairs with the caution in my steps to avoid a fall, Graham passed me, jumping like a deer from one step to another as he made his way down the hill.  I wondered to myself, “How does he run like that?”

I continued to run carefully down the stone stairs, though, because I remembered a friend's story about falling hard on these stairs during last year's race.  As I ran by the mysterious stone wall, I passed by Graham again, because he had stopped to take photos.  I rounded a curve and was cheered on by a few volunteer friends as I made my way down an easy flat trail to the next beautiful overlook ledge.  I passed by Lara, an ultrarunner with whom I had run at Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon and Sweet H2O 50K.  Lara is an accomplished, yet modest runner who starts in the back of the pack at trail races and later passes runners with her steady pace.  As I passed Lara on this stretch, I wondered if I would be able to keep a distance before she passed me later as she always had in the other races.

As the last half of the Gahuti Trail loop presented itself with a series of comfortable hill climbs and descents, I soon encountered a group of women and was surprised to see two friends, Beth and Stacey, leading the way.  Beth, a running hero of mine who consistently places well at road marathons and ultra races, had recently completed her first 100-mile race, the Keys 100 Mile, with Stacey pacing her along the way.  At this race, Beth was recovering from tendonitis in her foot and carefully descending the technical downhills to avoid aggravating the injury.  I passed her on one of these rocky downhill stretches, but was impressed at how she demonstrated her strength as a runner by quickly making up for lost time on the uphills.  As I crossed a road to see three friends, Kate, Whitney, and Russ, working the second aid station on the eighth mile, I joked with them to take pictures of me so that I would have proof that I was actually ahead of Beth during a race.

On the other side of the park road, a series of mostly leisurely downhills led us close to the campground area again before taking a fun trail turn that would lead us to the Mile 11 aid station.   During this section, I accompanied two first-time Mystery Mountain Marathon runners and I spared no details as I told them about the hills to come on the second loop of the course.  I exercised extreme caution during a couple of rocky sections in this area, because I remembered tearing my right leg on a fallen tree branch last year on this same mile.   Thanks to the efforts of a few hardworking GUTS volunteers, the fallen trees had mostly been cleared out of the way for this year's race.

I reached the Mile 11 aid station, I refilled my Camelbak, enjoyed some Gatorade, ate a potato slice, said hello to some volunteers, and took a handful of animal crackers with me as I turned to begin the second outer loop of Mystery Mountain Marathon.  The Mile 11 aid station was a daunting part of this race for the participants of the full marathon, because, as we took a sharp right turn from the aid station, we were greeted with the view of a massive power line trail hill before us.  The hill seemed to go straight up to the steps of heaven and I could see several other runners climbing in the distance.  Beth had caught up with me at the aid station and we talked as we power-walked up the hill together.

At the top of the hill, we took another sharp right turn and enjoyed a short flat stretch of trail before reaching the most treacherous challenge of Mystery Mountain Marathon, a hill that descends 1,200 feet in one mile over loose rocks and mountain bike trail cambers that threaten to twist an ankle with every step.  I passed Beth again as she carefully negotiated the hill with her foot injury and told her that she would quickly pass me once she reached the fire roads at the bottom of the hill.

I continued the downhill on my own, running quickly when I could, but mostly keeping a wary eye out for rocks.  This was the tricky technical downhill running that has always been a weakness of mine during trail races.   Trail running wisdom states to focus on where you want to take each step and not to think about where you do not want to step, because you will inevitably step in that very spot.  This is the same as telling someone not to think about a penguin, because that person will always immediately think of a penguin.  I found that I could make faster progress on the steepest descents by galloping or skipping down the hill instead of running with normal form.  Many faster trail runners like to sprint the downhills fearlessly, but I am not that sure of myself. I run downhills with exaggerated caution, as if I still weighed over a 100 pounds more than I do now.  This steep descent seemed to last an eternity. I would think that I was near the bottom of the mountain, only to turn a curve and see another endless stretch of trail going down.

Once the trail finally evened out into a comfortable downhill, I caught up with Laura, a friend from the Galloway group that I train with on most Saturday mornings.  I ran with Laura for a couple of miles as we passed by occasional piles of droppings from the extensive black bear population at Fort Mountain State Park.  I never saw a black bear during the Mystery Mountain Marathon, but I had seen one at the park years before during a hiking trip and one of the trail volunteers had taken a picture of a bear earlier on this day. Black bears are a common sight at this park and, if you feel like you are being watched while hiking or running at Fort Mountain, it’s probably not your imagination.  I told Laura, only half-jokingly, that I was afraid the bears would see a big runner like me and decide that I would be a good last meal before hibernation.

Laura and I reached the Mile 13 aid station and I was happy to see Victor, an ultrarunning friend, and Philip, who had volunteered at StumpJump 50K and cheered me on at various sites along that course.  Shortly after I refilled my Camelbak for the grueling six-mile stretch to the next aid station, we saw Beth racing down the fire road to the aid station and Philip took a photo of me as I made an exaggerated running pose with Beth approaching in the background for proof that I was, at one point, ahead of her during a race.

Laura and I alternately passed each other for the next mile of comfortable fire road hills and descents.   I was power-walking one uphill stretch when Beth passed me for the final time.  She was really speeding up the hill and I knew that I would never catch up with her again on these fire roads where she could race with the uphill strength that has served her well.

The next five miles were a mix of steep overbearing climbs and fun downhills that enabled me to enjoy a speedy pace to make up for lost time.   The sun was shining down on the fire road trails by this time, though, and the warmer temperatures of this year's race were really starting to catch up to me.  More noticeably, though, StumpJump 50K from the previous week was starting to catch up with me.  I knew that residual fatigue from that previous race that I had still not recovered from would hit me at some point and my knees were starting to buckle increasingly as I ran.  Still, I charged the downhills to the best of my ability while I could still enjoy the non-technical terrain of the fire roads.  I sang the lyrics to various punk songs to psyche myself up for speed on these downhills, although I was feeling my body temperature increase under the sun.

I was relieved that I felt no shin pain at all during Mystery Mountain Marathon.   My shin injury from Long Cane 55 Mile had resolved itself after a few weeks of icing and proper recovery.  Just the same, I was glad that I had worn the compression leg sleeves once again.

Photo courtesy of GUTS
As I made my way down the 301 loop trails by following orange ribbon trail markers tied to trees and passing by the occasional “GUTS Race: Wrong Way” signs that blocked side trails, the easy gravel road terrain gradually gave way to demanding rocky descents where I had to be careful not to roll my ankle.  I passed one runner along these rocks and joked with her that I would take the uphill climbs over this any day of the week.

When I arrived at the Mile 18.7 aid station, greeted by two friends, Kirsten and Bryce, I was dazed from the heat and from the fatigue in my legs.  I pulled a cooler out from under the aid station table and sat down for a couple of minutes to gather myself and drink cups of Gatorade as Kirsten refilled my Camelbak with water.  I ate some M&M's, stuffed a wrapped MoonPie in my pocket to treat myself during the fierce uphill that awaited, grabbed another handful of animal crackers, and continued off the road back onto park trails.

A series of fast descents provided false reassurance before the inevitable climb and, although I was feeling the effects of the heat, I ran these downhills to get the distance behind me as quickly as I could.   I knew that I had a long stretch of constant power-walking ahead of me during the climb ahead and I needed to run while it was possible to run.   Because I could feel my sweat levels increasing, I took two S-Caps in a short time for additional electrolytes as I continued to eat my gels every half hour.

When a sharp right turn pointed up from the gravel road, I knew that I had arrived at the ultimate hill climb of Mystery Mountain Marathon. The next two miles consisted of 1,300 feet of steep climbing that never relented.  I took quick small steps to conserve energy and earnestly started my way up the hill.  As laborious as this climb was, I was relieved that the trail was usually non-technical and that I could simply turn my brain off to take one step after another.  Every hill ends eventually and reaching the top of a demanding hill demands nothing other than relentless forward motion.   To my left, the terrain dropped off to reveal a beautiful rocky creek where I could hear rushing water and small waterfalls.  To my right, the mountain turned up at a steep angle amidst trees with an early hint of leaf change.  I occasionally heard noises in the bushes and trees to my right and tried to tell myself that these noises came from squirrels or chipmunks.

I felt like I had been walking up this hill for decades, but the trail eventually became less steep and the terrain shifted to a padded ground in a deep forest area next to the creek as I crossed a wooden bridge to the other side.  A few teenagers who were playing frisbee while volunteering at the trail at one bridge told me that I only had a mile to the next aid station.  I was able to break out into short runs on a few flat sections, but the uphill continued.

I finally arrived at the Mile 23 aid station, where three volunteers, Whitney, Kat, and Tom, refilled my Camelbak and encouraged me as I sat down in a camp chair to eat some potato chips and drink Gatorade.  In my exhausted state, I spent one minute too long at the aid station and Laura, whom I had outpaced a few miles back, caught up with me, quickly fueled, and returned to the trail before I stood up.  Relieved in the knowledge that I had less than four miles left to go, I soldiered on behind Laura on the trail.  The ability to run with any real speed had left me, but I still jogged the downhills and power-walked the uphill along a series of mountain biking dirt road terrain.  When I reached an unmanned aid station with water coolers and cups on a table, I simply passed it by and kept moving, since I had plenty of water left in my Camelbak.  I walked the final steep uphill of the course, assured that I was near the end.

I finally reached a clearing at the power lines where the final impossibly steep downhill awaited.   I took a sharp right turn to run down the same power line trail that I had walked up from the Mile 11 aid station earlier in the race.  That same aid station looked so close, yet so far away, as I ran down the hill as fast as my exhausted legs would allow.  I saw Laura ahead in the distance as she finished the downhill.  When I reached the bottom, a friend, Susan, directed me to the last mile of the trail that followed the same easy path around the lake to the campground.

As tired as I was, I still managed to run the entire last mile without stopping.  I could hear voices from the GUTS crowd at the finish area as I kept moving while watching my feet to avoid any last minute tree root stumbles.  I had made it through the entire Mystery Mountain Marathon without falling and I wanted to preserve that track record.  I rounded the lake, emerged from the woods, and crossed the finish line in 7:21:08.  I placed 54 out of 63 finishers for this year's race.

Mystery Mountain Marathon 2010 was my first experience racing a long trail race distance (just barely 27 miles) just one week after finishing a different trail ultramarathon.  I was tired and feeling the fatigue in my knees and hips, but I was still in one piece and happy to cross another threshold in my novice trail runner experience.  I had finished this year's Mystery Mountain Marathon just over an hour slower than last year's time, but this bittersweet victory was cushioned by the fact that this year's race was almost 15 degrees warmer than last year's race and by the fact that I had finished with an ultramarathon from the previous week under my belt.

I spent the next hour congratulating fellow GUTS runners and waiting at the finish for a few others to cross.  The GUTS volunteers had graciously set up a food table where chili was being served.  The food hit the spot and I took advantage to start my recovery process immediately.

I'm thankful to Race Director, Kim, and the GUTS volunteers for putting another outstanding Mystery Mountain Marathon together.  Mystery Mountain Marathon, the most brutal, rugged, and fun trail marathon out there, is a successful race run for my second year in a row, and I cannot wait to return in 2011.

See you on the trails.



  1. Awesome RR Jason, I enjoyed the detail. I wish I would have gotten a chance to cover a few miles with you, I have a feeling we will get some miles in together in the future! Good luck next week at NF!

  2. Excellent RR, Jason. Every time I read your RR, it makes me want to start trail running. And I think I'm gonna give it a try soon. You're inspiring.

  3. Once again I must say, you write a race report the way it should be written. Nice read, and nice race. Good luck next weekend.

  4. That is a solid time Jason & then when you look back at your last few weekends of running - that is a awesome time!

    I'm excited to see you do well at the North Face 50. Keep doing what you are doing, cause' it is working!