The StumpJump 50K, part of the Rock/Creek Trail Series, takes place on the Signal Mountain area of the Cumberland Trail above Chattanooga, Tennessee. This race, which was covered in a recent feature story in Trail Runner magazine, is a cornerstone of the Southeastern U.S. trail running scene and has drawn several nationally-recognized ultrarunners to its start line. I first heard about StumpJump 50K shortly after I began participating in trail races last year and my trail running friends have always commented favorably about the Rock/Creek races, so I was eager to sign up for this year's event and experience the famous race firsthand.
The StumpJump 50K is an out-and-back lollipop-shaped trail course where runners follow over ten miles of the lollipop stick before circling a ten-mile loop and then repeating the initial ten-plus miles in the opposite direction back to the start. Every famous race has a daunting challenge that is touted in stories to inspire dread in the minds of first-timers. Boston Marathon has its Heartbreak Hill, the Peachtree Road Race 10K has its Cardiac Hill, and Mount Cheaha 50K has its strenuous Blue Hell climb. The StumpJump 50K has the Rock Garden, a mile stretch of moss-covered boulders along the 17th mile of the course, just before the end of the loop section. Since I am a slow runner with a track record for falling on highly technical trails, fellow runners that I spoke to about this race were quick to indulge me with their perspectives. “I heard that a runner fell and broke his arm in the Rock Garden section.” “The Rock Garden is covered with giant boulders that move under your feet like surfboards and everybody falls at least once.” “It's impossible to run through the Rock Garden, it'll take you 30 minutes to get through the boulders, and then you'll have to climb a giant hill when you're tired from crossing the boulders.” In the weeks and days leading up to StumpJump 50K, I felt the same apprehension about the Rock Garden trail section that the boy characters in the movie, Stand By Me, had about the legendary junkyard dog, Chopper.
I love the city of Chattanooga and I always have a smile on my face when I make the turn on Highway 24 to see the panoramic cityscape stretched out before me with mountains in the background. When I arrived at the vendor fair and race number pickup at Coolidge Park by the Tennessee River the afternoon before the race, I was greeted by the sight of several booths belonging to trail shoe companies, outdoor stores, and volunteer organizations. I immediately found several friends in the crowd, as the close-knit nature of the trail running community makes every race seem almost like a family reunion. When I received my race packet and looked into the bag, I felt like I was opening presents on Christmas morning. The race bag included the technical Rock/Creek StumpJump 50K running shirt, a pair of Smartwool running socks, and even a pair of Skullcandy iPod headphones. After eating a pre-race dinner and listening to a fun presentation by Jen Pharr Davis, who holds the female speed record for the Appalachian Trail hike, I returned to my hotel. I was sharing a hotel room with Sean, a speedy ultrarunner and co-creator of the Run Bum website. We talked race strategy for a while before going to sleep.
The next morning, I arrived at the StumpJump 50K start area expecting to see the Super Bowl of Southeastern ultra races and I was not disappointed. Vendor booths were being set up alongside a large start line area. I was excited about participating in a trail ultramarathon with hundreds of other runners and I knew that this race would be a completely different experience than my previous trail ultramarathon, the Long Cane 55 Mile on September 5, where I was all alone on the trails for most of the course. I said hello to several friends, many of whom were fellow members of GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning And Trailrunning Society). In the minutes before the start of StumpJump 50K, I found my way to the back of the crowd, as I always do for ultramarathons, and tried to bolster my confidence by mentally reflecting on my level of preparedness for this race.
Fortunately, my fitness level at the start of StumpJump 50K was a confidence boost in itself. I had lost 54 pounds over the summer and was lighter than I had ever been for an ultramarathon. I thought about the giant 50-pound bags of dog food that people struggle to put into their carts at the grocery store and was grateful that I no longer had to carry that weight on my body as I had carried it for the brutal race experiences last spring. After reading Matt Fitzgerald's book, Racing Weight, I had trained myself to live on a diet of nutritionally dense foods and to strive for getting the most out of food intake during endurance events. I had benefited from being lighter on my feet at the Long Cane 55 Mile run earlier this month and I had lost another 14 pounds since that race.
There can be too much of a good thing at times, though, and I would realize later that I had made my biggest mistake of StumpJump 50K days before the race itself. After reaching a weight loss plateau two weeks before this race and striving to work though that plateau, I had resumed losing weight and, when I weighed in on my gym scales in the morning on the day before StumpJump, I was overjoyed that I had lost four pounds in the past week. In my excitement over breaking through my weight loss plateau, however, it had never occurred to me that losing four pounds the week before a strenuous 50K race might not have been a good idea. I stood at the start line relatively undernourished. Two days before the race, I had felt a flushed sensation indicative of common cold and, after taking Zicam for a day and sleeping a few extra hours, I was confident that the cold onset was behind me. I would discover later that I was not as fit for this race as I felt at the start line. Fatigue and weakness would hit me like a lead brick a few hours into the event.
|Photo courtesy of Dee Martin Baty|
For this race, I was wearing my Camelbak Rogue 70-ounce hydration pack that had served me well during the Long Cane 55 Mile run. In one compartment of the Camelbak, I kept a small container of Vaseline, several Band-Aids, toilet paper moist wipes, and a few strips of Kinesio tape, just in case I needed more to cover the blister areas on my feet that had recently healed from the previous race. In the second compartment of the Camelbak, I kept a great many Crank e-Gels. Having found the Mountain Rush flavor Crank e-Gel much to my liking, because it tastes like key lime pie and has 150 calories with 230 milligrams of sodium per packet, I was planning to eat one every half hour and utilize the same nutrition strategy that had served me well at the Long Cane race. In one pocket of my shorts, I kept a small pack with S-Caps, with the plan to take one S-Cap every hour. Since the weather was cool (a low of 50 degrees and a high of 73 degrees) on the day of StumpJump, I felt that one S-Cap per hour would be sufficient.
I wore my last pair of the discontinued Montrail Hardrock trail shoes. Instead of wearing one pair of DryMax socks for this race, I had reverted to my old trail race habit of wearing double pairs of Balega socks to minimize the onset of blisters. As always with my long runs, I wore a pair of Under Armour compression shorts under my regular running shorts. For StumpJump 50K, I had also decided to wear a pair of Zensah compression leg sleeves to ensure that the terrible shin splints that I had suffered with my right leg during Long Cane 55 Mile would not present a difficulty.
The StumpJump 50K race started with a brief paved road section that circled the school grounds to thin out the runners before we entered a trail off the side of the road behind the school. For the first ten miles of this race, I knew that I would be running everything again in the opposite direction later on, so I was glad that the initial ascent up the paved road would make for a comfortable downhill finish at the end. I started the race in the company of some friends. Cindy, a local ultrarunner with whom I had run at Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon and at Hot To Trot, was starting in the back of the pack with me. Scott, a runner from the Long Cane 55 Mile race, accompanied us for the first few miles and stopped occasionally to take photos. Shawn, with whom I had run at Warrior Dash, had never completed a race longer than 5K before attempting this 50K. I was impressed by Shawn's bravery and invited him to run the first few miles with me, since I always purposely start my ultramarathons slowly in the pack of the pack. I am probably the last person in the world who should give advice on how to run ultramarathons, but I gave a few pointers to Shawn. I advised him to eat before he was hungry, to drink before he was thirsty, and to just keep moving at all times by walking if he felt unable to run.
The first four miles of StumpJump 50K consisted of wide trails with a cushioned dirt and light gravel surface over pleasant rolling hill terrain. This easy stretch of mostly downhill trails was a good opportunity to open up and get some fast miles in before the race ventured into technical rocky territory, but I held back with a slower running pace and briskly walked the uphill sections. I caught up with Rob, a friend from recent ultramarathons and a veteran of over a hundred ultra races, and enjoyed his steady pace as we talked. Two miles into the course, the trail turned next to a school football field and I reminded myself to take note so that, when I reached this area on the way back, I would know that I still had two miles of trail before the finish line. I also took note of the yellow flag markers with the “R/C” logo for Rock/Creek. For the remainder of the race, I would be reassured at the sight of these markers along the trail to direct me along the correct route.
At mile four, we reached an interesting rock formation appropriately known as Mushroom Rock. I barely took time to see Mushroom Rock before beginning a harsh technical downhill stretch that descended over 500 feet in a third of a mile. I ran when I could, but was careful to walk the extremely rocky sections and ledges. During this steep descent, I remembered with no small amount of apprehension that I would have to climb up this same hill for the return trip. At the bottom of this descent, we crossed a long wooden suspension bridge that swayed as different runners stepped onto it behind me. I enjoyed this bridge and the view of boulders on the creek bed below, but I was happier still to reach solid ground on the other side. A steep 500-foot climb greeted us on the other side, but we were rewarded at the top with an easy single-track gradual downhill section. The gradual downhill eventually became a steep descent that took us to the first aid station next to Suck Creek Road, just over six miles into the race.
At this first aid station, I refilled my Camelbak with water, grabbed a small handful of M&M's, and then took a Mini MoonPie to eat as I walked up Suck Creek Road before starting another uphill trail climb. During my weight loss in recent months, I've enjoyed another reason to look forward to ultramarathon races. During a long endurance run, my normal daily low sugar eating habits are thrown aside to benefit from sugar carbohydrates that provide me with energy to continue running. During an ultramarathon, I can greedily consume foods that I normally consider off limits. As I ascended the road to rejoin the marked trail, I savored the MoonPie and took my time to enjoy the chocolate-covered graham cookies and marshmallow that melted in my mouth with each bite. Heaven could not be much better than this.
The trail brought me back to reality with a very steep uphill ascent that thankfully changed to more tolerable switchback ascents after roughly a hundred feet. I ascended this uphill stretch quickly and left some of the runners in my group behind, although Cindy was never far from me back on the trail. I power-walked the hill and enjoyed the short stretches where I could run. After a brief downhill, I crossed a bridge and started to follow a couple of women down a rocky trail stretch on the other side of the creek before I noticed that the Rock/Creek flag markers pointed to the uphill trail instead. I called out to the women, who had just realized that they had taken a wrong turn, and directed them to the flag markers. I would find out later that a great many runners took wrong turns at this intersection and a few of them proceeded a long way down the creek trail before having to turn back. My belief that I am too slow to get lost during an ultramarathon was supported yet again.
The next section was one of my favorite stretches of this StumpJump race. Miles of easily runnable single-track trail with an incredible view of the Tennessee River valley on one side and massive granite cliffs to the other side were welcome terrain to me at this point, as I was beginning to feel an early fatigue. I occasionally quickened my running pace, but mostly stuck to my “If it feels like working, then you're working too hard.” casual running style that allowed me to have conversations with other runners while moving along. I quickly power-walked the short uphills, but resumed easy running for most of this trail. As much as I wanted to take in the view on this sunny October day, I remembered one basic truth of trail running, “You look up, you fall down.”, and paid careful attention to the large rocks and to the smaller, more insidious rocks along the way. The sun was shining into my eyes in several areas, so I had to be extra careful not to lose sight of obstacles along the trail as I ran.
I soon encountered Graham, a veteran ultrarunner and friend, whom I had met at previous ultra races and with whom I had run for several miles at Sweet H2O 50K. Graham, who always sports his yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet, is one of my heroes of the sport, because of his steady pace and his drive to complete each ultramarathon despite the most extreme circumstances. Like me, Graham is a back of the pack runner, but his pace is not to be underestimated. I remembered the sight of Graham soldiering on ahead of me at Sweet H2O 50K this past April when my heavy weight and residual fatigue from previous races had gotten the best of me. The fact that Graham is a fellow Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket gives him additional character points. We ran and power-walked together for a long way on this section before Graham told me to go ahead, complimenting me on my hill-climbing pace. Whenever I happened to glance behind me for the next few miles, though, I saw Graham's yellow singlet not far off in the distance. A large group of fast, fit runners suddenly caught up with me and passed me on the trail and I was told that they had all taken the wrong turn down by the creek bridge where I had followed the flag markers.
I climbed down short rocky stairwell between two boulders and found myself next to massive rock walls along a nicely runnable single-track trail with occasional tricky rocky areas. My fatigue was increasing, but I knew that the second aid station at Indian Rock House was just ahead, at 10.6 miles into the race. On arrival, I recognized the Indian Rock House aid station immediately, because pictures of this aid station were featured in the Trail Runner magazine story. The aid station table is sheltered underneath a giant boulder next to the Tennessee River valley overlook. I also recognized Philip, a local friend who was volunteering at this race after completing Cascade Crest 100-Mile a few weeks ago. I would see Philip at several different points along the rest of this race and his motivation at each encounter was a real blessing. I remembered Philip hanging out at the end of Sweet H2O to cheer me to the starting line and I would later joke with him that saving my tail during ultra races was becoming his new full time job.
My standard practice at ultramarathons is to drink water out of my Camelbak, but also to drink Gatorade or Powerade out of cups at aid station stops for additional electrolytes. Most of the aid stations at StumpJump 50K did not have Gatorade or Powerade and, instead, served HEED, because Hammer Nutrition is an important sponsor of the race. I have had mixed results with HEED in the past and I missed the availability of my favorite sports drinks at these aid stations, but I remembered that it is up to each runner to ultimately be responsible for himself or herself during the race when it comes to fueling choices. The pre-race email for this StumpJump 50K event made clear that HEED would be the available sports drink at the aid stations, so I had anticipated this when planning to carry my gels and S-Caps. I refilled my Camelbak at the Indian Rock House aid station, ate an apple slice, grabbed a handful of animal crackers, and continued along the marked trail.
|Photo courtesy of Scott Hodukavich|
An unexpected and sudden energy drop hit me shortly after leaving the Indian Rock House aid station. During the past few miles, my fatigue level had been increasing, but not at an alarming rate. As I started out along the ten-mile lollipop loop section of this race course, though, I felt a lightheaded tiredness overtake me. I kept moving and, since the beginning of the loop trail was the most runnable section of the StumpJump race, I still enjoyed my ability to run slowly on the single-track trail. I was gradually having to walk for longer sections, though, as the sudden tiredness and ensuing mental disappointment caught up with me. I thought about my rapid weight loss and short fight against oncoming cold symptoms over the past week and realized that I had simply started StumpJump without sufficient energy from a proper taper week. I had made it through the first ten miles of this race without trouble, but whatever energy stores I had possessed were now drained. A slight shin pain was occasionally resurfacing in my right leg and, although this shin pain was never constant and never rose above mere discomfort level, I was downcast to realize that I had not fully recovered from my shin injury at Long Cane 55 Mile.
My stomach was also starting to feel troubled and food no longer appealed to me. I kept eating the animal crackers one by one, but I was having to keep them down with water. I hoped that, although my fatigue was likely the result of inadequate nutrition in the days before this race, my constant schedule of gels every half hour, S-caps every hour, and handfuls of food from each aid station would pay off before long and that I would get my energy back. At this point, though, as I ran and power-walked down a beautiful and mostly non-technical single-track along the loop, I doubted my ability to make the six-hour cutoff time at mile 19. I knew that the dreaded Rock Garden was waiting for me at mile 17 and that, if I still lacked energy, my slow pace would not be enough to continue along.
Cindy and Graham both caught up with me on the trail, along with a couple of other runners, and I told Cindy about my predicament, although I made an effort not to dwell on the negatives. I tried to find things to joke about as my energy level tanked. Fortunately, my mental state was aided by the company of Cindy and Graham and I started enjoying their conversations as they proceeded close behind me on the trail. One of my favorite books is Cash: The Autobiography, by Johnny Cash. During my long trail races, I often think about Johnny Cash's belief that God occasionally sends angels to us in the form of people to help us along when we are struggling with difficult circumstances. Sometimes, a friend or even a total stranger can be an angel in the right place at the right time. I've certainly encountered my share of angels in the form of people during my ultrarunning adventures and, during this trail section, Cindy and Graham were helping me along just being there so that I could hear familiar voices behind me.
We heard singing in the distance and, just before we reached the Snoopers Rock aid station. Two teenage boys were welcoming runners to the aid station with a comical rendition of a Lady Gaga song. I was encountering more of the angels that Johnny Cash described, even if I wished that these two had better taste in music. I refilled my Camelbak at the aid station and asked one volunteer how far I was from the Rock Garden. He told me that the Rock Garden was coming up in just a couple of miles.
I took another handful of animal crackers from the aid station, because I liked eating them one by one on the trail and because they always stayed dry in my hand, regardless of how much I was sweating. I was still disgusted at the thought of eating food and, whenever I downed one of my Crank e-Gels at a half hour mark, I had to struggle to keep it down. I knew, however, that the worst thing that I could possibly do at the time would be to stop fueling myself. I've been advised by many veteran ultrarunners that it's crucial to keep eating even when I do not feel like eating. If I stopped fueling myself, I would hit the wall and never be able to bounce back. The only way that I was going to make it out of my current predicament was to eat my way out of it.
I eventually increased the distance ahead of Cindy and Graham, but I was not alone by this time. Two young women, April and Amy, started leapfrogging me along this section. I would pass both of them during a hill climb and they would pass me on a flat or downhill. We were all reduced to power-walking for a lot of the time, but I found that I was keeping a comparable pace with a handful of runners. I struggled to get farther ahead of April and Amy, but they passed me again and again. Each time, I would joke, “You're passing me again?”
I was barely ahead of April and Amy when I emerged from the trail onto a short section of uphill dirt road and was greeted by two enthusiastic female volunteers from a local cross country team just before I reached the Haley Road aid station. I refilled my Camelbak, grabbed more animal crackers, and was told that I had just under two and half miles until the next aid station. Unfortunately, the legendary and ominous Rock Garden was somewhere between me and that aid station.
I left the aid station with April and Amy still at my heels or continuing just ahead of me. We were ascending several single-track hills at this point and the elevation was getting higher, but there was still no hint of a Rock Garden in sight. April and Amy shared my aggravation and one of them vented, “There's probably no Rock Garden at all! It's just something they made up to scare new people!” I knew that the Rock Garden was there, though, and was eager at this point to find out the truth behind the hype. Was the Rock Garden as dangerous as everyone said or would it be a letdown, like Chopper, the junkyard dog in Stand By Me?
The wait was soon over. The sunny single-track trail quickly gave way to a dark, humid cavernous area and the boulders appeared. I had finally entered the Rock Garden.
I was surprised at how quickly the reassuring single-track trail with sun shining through the October leaves had disappeared and been replaced by a formidable setting that resembled a scene from The Lord Of The Rings. Although I was not at an elevation low point, the Rock Garden gave the impression of being situated at the very bottom of a dark deep valley. The terrain was covered with large boulders amid smaller rocks and I had to step from boulder to boulder to make my way. The rocks were mossy, but thankfully dry. I shuddered to think of how difficult this trail section would be on a rainy day. Most of the rocks did not move under my feet, but I was still reduced to a careful walk as I stepped from one large rock to the next. Ever so often, one of my ankles would turn at an angle as I stepped on a rock and I had to adjust my balance.
The actual trail through the Rock Garden was easy to follow since I looked up occasionally to check for the white blazes on the trees, as another runner had warned me beforehand to do. The yellow Rock/Creek trail markers were present, but sporadic, and I understood why many faster runners had trouble discerning a trail path in this area. The Rock Garden was nowhere near as difficult as my worst fears had led me to believe, but it was still very much a dangerous place. I kept thinking about the most painful fall of my trail-running life that had happened last year on Thanksgiving morning when some local trail runners and I were negotiating some large loose boulders underneath a bridge over the Chattahoochee River in north Atlanta. I had slipped on a large rock, striking one shin against another rock, and lodging my other ankle in a crevice. The pain was excruciating and I was told to sit down for a couple of minutes until my shaking had stopped. The resulting injury had left a lump on my shin that remained for months. If I was not careful stepping from boulder to boulder on the Rock Garden and suffered a similar injury, StumpJump 50K would be over for me. I stepped along the rocks, relieved that the reality of Rock Garden was not as bad as the legendary descriptions, but still potentially unforgiving to the careless misstep.
|Photo courtesy of Sean Oh|
The Rock Garden was over as suddenly as it had begun and I found myself climbing a steep uphill. My relief at my completion of the Rock Garden section spurred me on and I made the ascent quickly with a newfound vigor. I saw a couple of runners ahead of me in the distance that I had not yet seen before and I was happy to finally be catching up to others.
I arrived at the mile 19 Mullen's Cove aid station to my biggest surprise of the race. So far in the race, I had arrived at each aid station to find one or two runners finishing their bottle refills before continuing. By contrast, I emerged from the woods at Mullen's Cove to see a huge crowd of people standing around or sitting on picnic tables. I saw that most of these people had race numbers. Somehow, I had caught up with a great many runners. My outlook for the rest of the race was instantly improved. Philip greeted me and congratulated me on making it to the mile 19 aid station in just over five hours and 30 minutes. I had beat the cutoff time by a half hour. A volunteer refilled my Camelbak with water and another volunteer pointed me to a nearby truck and asked if I wanted some Powerade. “Powerade?”, I asked, and the volunteer pointed to several Powerade bottles in the truck. After only seeing paper cups of HEED at the aid stations up to that point, I stared at the Powerade bottles and felt like I was Indiana Jones staring at some golden idols. When the volunteer handed me a Powerade bottle, I sat down at a picnic table and quickly downed three quarters of the bottle as I ate a handful of peanut butter pretzels. I was surrounded by several other runners who were resting after the tough climb up from the Rock Garden. April and Amy were walking around and a few other familiar runners were refueling from the food table. I stood up after just a couple of minutes at the picnic table and decided that I could gain an edge on these runners if I left the aid station immediately and continued along the trail.
The mile between Mullen's Cove and Indian Rock House at the end of the lollipop loop was an easy flat single-track trail that I ran almost nonstop as I trailed a couple of runners, Matt and Ryan, that I had remembered from meeting at the starting area. Matt and Ryan were racing their first ultramarathon and were moving along very well.
My energy was spiking at this point in the race and I was overtaken by a strong second wind. My resolve to keep eating earlier in the race when I did not feel like eating had paid off in spades. The energy from a constant nutrition schedule, combined with my surprise at passing several runners at Mullen's Cove and the bottle of Powerade that I had consumed, had turned me into a new machine.
A fourth runner was starting to catch up to us as we carefully descended wooden steps between two massive boulders that squeezed together for a tight space. As we made it to the bottom of the stairway, I joked, “This is discrimination against fat people!”, and the other runners started laughing. Soon after, we arrived at the Indian Rock House for the last time. I quickly refilled my Camelbak and was told by a volunteer that I had 10.6 miles to go. I grabbed a handful of animal crackers and continued behind Matt and Ryan. The three of us passed a girl just a half mile later, then caught up with a woman who introduced herself as Vicky and told us that she would run at our pace for a while. The four of us passed a handful of other runners as we quickly ran and power-walked the single-track overlooking Tennessee River. At one point, Matt pointed to our right and we saw two spectacular chimney-like rock formations nearby. I had not noticed these rocks during my first trip along this trail, because I had been so busy watching my feet, and I would not have noticed them this time had they not been pointed out to me.
I was surprised at how much I had actually been running during this StumpJump race. This was the first ultramarathon so far where I had run as much as I had power-walked and, although my “running” was usually a slow jog by the standards of most ultrarunners, I was pleased with my improvement. This was the difference between the 260+ pound Jason of early 2010 and the current Jason who had lost 54 pounds. Vicky and I passed Matt and Ryan after a couple of miles and the two us of continued along the runnable single-track ridge, power-walking the uphills, but running the downhills and flats at a decent pace.
|Photo courtesy of Sean Oh|
I was feeling great and I wanted to pass as many runners as I could by catching up with them and picking them off one by one. I looked at my Garmin to see that six and half hours had elapsed so far and I decided that I wanted to reach the finish line in less than nine hours. This was a new ultramarathon experience for me, because I am usually ambling along the trail by myself in the final miles and just wanting to finish the race in one piece. I had finished six trail ultramarathons in the past, but this was my first time racing an ultramarathon. I was still at the back of the pack for this race with a slow time after most runners had probably already completed the race, and I knew that I would never ever be confused with runners like Karl Meltzer or Geoff Roes, but I was still excited at my newfound desire to pick off runners and pass them before the finish line. I am always happy just to finish an ultramarathon and I will always be happy just to finish an ultramarathon, but I wanted more this time.
With Vicky right behind me, I enjoyed the our conversations as we ran along. I gradually increased the distance between the two of us, but she remained close. I would go out farther ahead of her as I climbed the uphills quickly, while she would edge closer to me on the downhills. We moved along as the single track left the river overlook and changed to uphills and downhills with wooden bridge crossings over rocky creek areas.
After a rough steep descent down to Suck Creek Road, I saw Philip for the third time as he and another volunteer stood at the road to greet runners. He informed me that I only had a 10K distance left to run and I thanked him as I jogged down Suck Creek Road to the aid station. I refilled my Camelbak, had a handful of peanut-butter pretzels, and drank a cup of ginger ale before crossing a wooden bridge.
I looked at my Garmin and noted the time of 7:15. I had 1:45 to finish just over six miles of this course if I wanted to finish in less than nine hours. The only problem was that I had two steep 500-foot-plus rocky elevations to climb over the next two miles before Mushroom Rock. I put my game face on and began to quickly power-walk up the first hill from Suck Creek Road.
I reached the top of the first hill and began to run nonstop along the non-technical single-track on the ridge. I passed another runner and continued along, power-walking some of the more demanding hills, but running the rest of the time, even on the gradual ascents. I was able to make short work out of the downhill switchbacks to the suspension bridge, although I slowed to be careful with the rocks just before reaching the bridge. Although I was the only person on the suspension bridge this time, I still slowed to a walk and enjoyed the view of the boulders below. When I reached the other side of the bridge, I focused and started power-walking the last ascent, the most demanding ascent of StumpJump 50K, as fast as I could.
This final uphill stretch was no joke, but I soldiered along. I occasionally had to grab trees to pull myself up the steep and rocky trail sections, but I managed to pass two more runners on the way up this hill and was feeling more positive energy from doing so. I heard voices from the final aid station at Mushroom Rock and accelerated my pace. I did not even take time to look at the actual mushroom rock formation at this Mushroom Rock aid station and, instead, refilled my Camelbak with water for the last time and ate a banana while one volunteer told me that I only had three and half miles left to go. On the way out of the Mushroom Rock aid station, I passed a runner and asked him how he was doing. When he told me that he was suffering from cramps, I offered him one of my S-Caps, but he declined and said that he would keep using his Nunn Electrolyte Tablets until the finish. I broke into a run and continued, enjoying the mostly-flat wider trail that was my reward for making it up the steep hills to the final aid station.
The final three and half miles were the fastest three and half miles of any ultramarathon that I've completed so far. I power-walked quickly during a handful of long hills, but I mostly ran nonstop on the flats and long gradual downhills, doing my best to keep running when I encountered a couple of tricky mud holes along the way. I passed one woman who was limping from what appeared to be an ankle injury, but she was in good spirits as we greeted one another. I reached the trail section adjacent to a school football field and remembered that I still had a couple of miles left to go. I looked down at my Garmin and quickened my pace, because I really wanted to break the nine-hour mark. Yet again, I ran into Philip as he waited by a road crossing to greet runners. He cheered me on, telling me that I was close to the finish. I ran through more rolling-hill trail terrain, thankful for the yellow Rock/Creek trail marker flags at each intersection.
Most of the final trail section was downhill and I ran as quickly as I could find it in me to run. I passed one road crossing and was told by a volunteer that I had less than a mile. After almost an eternity of running along the trails, I passed another runner and joked with him, “This is the longest less-than-a-mile that I've ever run.” He laughed and replied, “Yeah...I wish they would just tell the truth!”
I finally made it to the paved road and was happy to see two GUTS friends, Sean and Wayne, waiting for me and taking photos. They enthusiastically cheered me on as I reached the road and continued my slow run. The road continued up a hill that I would have normally walked at this point in the race under any other circumstances, but I was compelled to reach within and run when Sean and Wayne drove beside me in a SUV taking pictures and yelling encouragement. I reached the top of the hill and continued running along the flat paved road, excited to see a few more GUTS runners waiting. I waved to Matthew and a few others in one vehicle and then thanked Sally as she cheered me on from beside the road. In the distance ahead of me, I was surprised to see Joel, another GUTS runner, and his cousin, Bobby, who was about to complete his first 50K, running side by side. I tried my best to speed up and close the distance between us as I rounded the final downhill to the finish. I was well below the nine-hour mark and overjoyed to have finished strongly by my standards. When I reached the finish line just behind Joel and Bobby, my fast excited pace on the paved road caught up with me and I was mentally dazed as one volunteer, Charlene, removed the name stub from my race number to count my finish and another volunteer put a medal around my neck. This was good surprise, as I was unaware that medals were being given to finishers. I asked a volunteer what my official finish time was and then congratulated Joel and Bobby as the three of us made our way to the food stand, where hamburgers and cold drinks awaited.
I had finished StumpJump 50K in 8:49:14. I had finished the final eleven miles from Mullen's Cove to the finish in three hours and completed the final 10K distance in less than an hour and half, despite the two brutal trail climbs.
The next hour was spent waiting to cheer for friends, old and new, as they crossed the finish line. I ate my hamburger, changed out of my running clothes beside my truck, and limped around to greet others and compare stories. I ambled to a North Face vendor booth and, when I saw a huge basket of MoonPies in front of me, I thanked the volunteers, telling them that I loved MoonPies. I saw a couple of apples in the MoonPie basket and suddenly decided that they looked more appetizing at the moment. I picked up an apple and ambled away, aware that the volunteers were probably shaking their heads in confusion as I left. I stayed at the finish line area until my friends, Cindy and Graham, both made it across. I did not see Shawn before I left, but I was very happy to find out later that he had completed the race.
I did not break my 50K distance record at StumpJump 50K, but I think that this was my best ultra race performance to date. I ran more and walked less during this ultra than I ever had before and I pulled out of a severe energy drop with a second wind motivation that carried me to the end. Considering the demanding terrain of StumpJump, including the harsh Rock Garden section, I think that I fared well. I am still a back of the pack ultrarunner, but back of the pack runners can still race.
I cannot thank Rock/Creek and the Chattanooga running community enough for making this epic trail race possible. I am looking forward to signing up for future Rock/Creek events and to spending more time in Chattanooga. Most of all, though, I feel fortunate to have the well-wishes of trail running friends who motivated and inspired me through a challenging course.
See you on the trails.