On October 1, 2011, I completed my second StumpJump 50K with a finish time of 7:46:14 and improved on my previous year’s finish by over an hour.
The StumpJump 50K, part of the Rock/Creek Trail Series in Chattanooga, Tennessee, takes place on the Signal Mountain portion of the scenic Cumberland Trail. The lollipop-shaped out-and-back course runs along a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River for several miles and combines rocky technical trail terrain with several challenging climbs. The Rock Garden, a brutal section near the end of the lollipop loop of the course where runners step from one large rock to another for almost a mile, can punish the unprepared with bloody bruises or broken bones. Despite the challenges, StumpJump 50K still attracts ultrarunners from across the country by serving as a celebration of what the Southeastern U.S. can offer to adventure-seekers. The sold-out race field ranges from nationally-recognized runners to novices participating in their first ultramarathon.
I fell in love with the StumpJump 50K experience last year when I completed the race in 8:49:14 and made several new friends along the way. After a series of disappointing trail race performances throughout the summer where I had moved sluggishly in the record temperatures and even dropped out four hours into a 24-hour race event on Labor Day weekend due to heat sickness, my running mojo had returned in recent weeks as the weather cooled, and I was looking forward to falling in love with this epic race course all over again. The pre-race atmosphere in the Signal Mountain High School parking lot, where sponsor booths stretched down a long paved corridor beside the massive inflatable start/finish marker, was a motivation in itself and I was glad to be part of the fun for another year.
Conventional wisdom states that runners should not try anything different on the day of a race. For this race, I was defying that wisdom by doing almost everything differently. I was wearing a brand-new never-worn pair of shoes along with new compression shorts underneath new running shorts. I had worn Montrail Mountain Masochist shoes for several previous races, of course, but my new pair had not even been through the customary short test run. I was running without compression leg sleeves, which had been a constant during my cooler weather races in previous years. I had left my Crank e-Gels on the shelf this time to test a new nutrition strategy of alternating Honey Stinger Gold gels with chocolate Accel gels. Instead of eating lightly in the days before the race as I had always done in the past to benefit psychologically from a lower weight at the race start, I had indulged in several carb-heavy meals starting three days before this event in an attempt to avoid the familiar loss of energy a few miles into the course. Most importantly, though, I would be running an ultramarathon without S-Caps for the first time. I had always routinely taken an S-Cap once an hour for sodium and electrolytes, but I had recently started to question whether or not my S-Cap routine was helping or hurting my performances. My body always seemed to swell almost instantly in recent races when I took the first S-Cap and inevitably drank more water in response to the increased thirst. The fatigue from added weight and my concern for the swelling always took my mind out of the race and into an escalating negativity. I remembered my still-unmatched finish times from my first five marathons in 2009, when I had not yet started taking the S-Caps, and I decided to revert to uncomplicated basics again for this year’s StumpJump, since the cold temperatures would be a good initial test. I carried a couple of packets of Hammer Endurolytes in my Camelbak, just in case I felt the need for electrolytes, but I never used them during this race.
As the race started, with a helicopter filming the runners from overhead, I was ready to put my new strategies to the test. After standing in sub-40-degree temperatures, I felt energetic as I warmed up in back of the crowd during a short paved loop around the side of the high school before entering the woods. The terrain of the first four miles of StumpJump 50K is deceptively pleasant, with its mixture of soft single track and wide jeep roads, and I joked with a fellow runner that things would get pretty intense pretty quickly as soon as we passed a unique boulder structure known as Mushroom Rock. Sure enough, the trail turned into a steep descent at that point and took us to a swinging bridge that hovered above a valley strewn with large rocks. I followed other runners on this bridge of doubtful construction, where the boards looked older than me, and took short baby steps to save energy on a sharp incline up the other side of the valley. At the top of this section, I was rewarded by a pleasant straight single-track that encouraged several minutes of non-stop running.
I had programmed my watch to beep every 30 minutes as a reminder to me to eat a gel, and the watch sounded off for the second time during my slow descent on a rocky trail down to the Suck Creek Road crossing just over six miles into the course. As I climbed a series of wooden steps back into the woods above the road crossing, I heard some familiar voices behind me and was surprised to see several friends from the Get Fit Atlanta training group. Since John, Sandy, Mike, and Philip normally finish ultramarathons much faster than I, I wondered briefly if I were pacing myself too quickly from the start to have them running behind me. At the moment, though, the pace felt great, and I maintained a comfortable sub-15:00/mile speed by running the easier sections and power-walking the small rolling hills underneath cliff faces as the view of the Tennessee River spread out below. As I alternately talked with the Get Fit Atlanta crowd about ultrarunning and zoned out while they talked about Ironman triathlons, the rolling terrain increasingly traversed small boulder ravines that my Mountain Masochist shoes seemed to handle with ease. I ate a Honey Stinger Gold gel at the watch interval beep, enjoying the instant flavor spike of honey, and hoped that my energy would carry me into the middle lollipop loop section of the course. During my first StumpJump race, I had experienced a sudden fatigue after starting the loop just over ten miles into the course and had walked most of that loop before getting a second wind for the final return. I was determined to continue running through the lollipop loop this time around. The Get Fit Atlanta crowd eventually passed me, as I knew that they would, just before we reached the Indian Rock House aid station that ended the lollipop stick portion of the trail to begin the middle loop trail.
The Indian Rock House aid station, a table setup stationed underneath a giant boulder, finally revealed itself, and I refilled my 70-ounce Camelbak with water for the first time. Remembering that I had always performed better in races when I avoided solid food, I stayed away from the plethora of M&M’s, potato chips, and pretzels at this station, and continued along the trail, eager to see if my energy would last into Mile 11 and beyond. Fortunately, the trail terrain became more yielding at this point as the frequency of rock-strewn areas diminished. I played leapfrog with a couple of runners who were using trekking poles and struggled to stay close behind another runner who had passed me just after leaving the aid station.
The first few miles of the lollipop loop were pleasingly uneventful and I was happy to be running the entire time, save for a handful of moderate hills. I remembered that the temperatures had risen into the 70’s this time last year, and I was certain that my improvements this year were due to the temperatures being a good 15-20 degrees cooler throughout the day. Just the same, my confidence was rising and that felt good. At the next aid station, three miles into the loop, I took a handful of Gummi Bears for added sugar, and continued without refilling my Camelbak. The cold weather and my avoidance of S-Caps had resulted in more efficient hydration for this event, so that I only had to refill the Camelback three times during the race.
Inevitable tiredness set in around the halfway point of the race, but I did not experience any sudden energy drops or mental low points. I made my way along the steeper hill climbs by singing favorite songs to myself and by reminding myself that every single step after the halfway point brought me closer to the free hamburger that would be waiting for me at the finish line. I wanted that hamburger and I wanted it soon. The midway point of the loop featured more hills, but there were also a few fun downhills. When I jumped some rocks at a dry creek crossing, I had to briefly wonder where the trail was until I saw the yellow Rock/Creek flags marking the way. The trail had veered away from the Tennessee River by this time, so the luxurious views no longer greeted me during my walk breaks as I climbed the occasional hill. Fortunately, the walk breaks were less frequent this year and I was making better time.
The second aid station of the loop rests at the end of a massive jeep road hill. A woman waited at the top of the hill to cheer runners along to the aid station, but when I finally reached her and made a small turn, I saw that the aid station was still a couple hundred yards up the hill. One foot after another got me there and I refilled my Camelbak for the second time while drinking a cup of Mountain Dew for an energy jolt. I was struggling to stay positive and to avoid the negativity pitfalls that plagued me during previous races, so I kept smiling and telling volunteers that I was “living the dream” when they asked how I was doing. It’s worth noting that the volunteers at the StumpJump aid stations were extremely well-prepared to refill hydration packs and had pitchers on hand to speed the process. We have all been through ultramarathon aid stations where volunteers give a blank stare when we ask to have our packs refilled and we have to stand for an eternity next to a water cooler while water trickles into our pack, but the volunteers with the water pitchers at this race made everything fast and easy. StumpJump 50K 2011 wins the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Hydration Pack Refills.
The final three miles of the lollipop loop are the toughest of the race, but I managed to pass a couple of runners on my way up a long climb from the aid station. The terrain alternately climbed and descended into a variety of ecosystems at this point, ranging from sunny hilltops with plentiful trees to shady ravines covered in ferns. At each downhill, I expected the Rock Garden that I knew was coming, but the trail would then climb again into the sun. I was doing fine without S-Caps, although I slowed my pace a couple of times when I felt the early warning signs of slight cramps.
As I fell in behind a couple of runners, one of whom recognized me from the 2010 race, I finally reached the Rock Garden. Instead of trying to move ahead, I gladly stayed behind the two runners and let them find the trail markings to lead the way so that I could turn off my brain while I stepped from one angled boulder to another. The three of us joked about the rock obstacles and I commented that, if I did fall and injure myself on this section, then I would be excused from running Pinhoti 100 in November. This section went slowly, but uneventfully, as the three of us made it through the Rock Garden without falling.
After finishing the Rock Garden trail, we were “rewarded” by a steep hill climb. I passed the two runners and continued up the hill, eager to reach the Mullens Cove aid station just past Mile 19 of the race. I took baby steps up the hill once again to save energy, then picked up my speed to pass a couple of runners as the trail evened out into flatter terrain at the top. I grabbed a large handful of Gummi Bears at the aid station and broke out into a run when I got to the fun 0.7-mile stretch that led back to the Indian Rock House at the end of the lollipop loop. This was the section where I found my second wind a year ago and I experienced a similar energy boost this time to pass a few people who were walking this stretch to recover. I ran down a series of stairs that descended between two close boulders for a “fat man squeeze” effect, then turned right to find myself at Indian Rock House again.
I finally remembered to empty my shorts pocket of the multiple empty gel wrappers that I had carried since the beginning of the race, and one of the Montrail representatives at the aid station exclaimed that I ate a lot of gels. I refilled my Camelbak for the final time, drank some Mountain Dew, and took another handful of Gummi Bears for the four-mile trek back to Suck Creek Road.
I was roughly five hours and 15 minutes into the race, and I realized that I had a decent shot of finishing with a sub-8-hour time if I really pushed myself. The idea of a sub-8-hour finish at StumpJump 50K, one of the most rugged 50K courses around, excited me and gave me a new momentum. I ran through the rocky single track next to giant boulder cliffs, disappointed when I had to slow down to cross the rocky ravines or negotiate short climbs. This goal of finishing in less than eight hours became an obsession, because I knew that I would redeem myself after my disappointing drop from the Woods Ferry 24 Hour a month ago. I continued to eat a gel at every half hour watch beep and I prayed that I could maintain this energy all the way to the end. I passed a handful of runners as I planned my steps on the trail and avoided the temptation to stop to enjoy the view of the river below.
There was something amazing about the four-mile stretch back from Indian Rock House to Suck Creek Road on this course that made me grateful to be a trail runner. The feeling that I was doing something that I was born to do resurfaced for the first time in several months and, as I enjoyed the early fall breezes, I felt a thousand years removed from my frustrated and exhausted state during so many of the hot weather races over the summer. Even the slow runners like me can reap the rewards of consistent summer training when the fall weather takes hold and makes the running so much easier.
The trip back to Suck Creek Road is still somewhat maddening, because the vehicles from the road can be heard for more than a mile down the trail before reaching it. The trail went around multiple corners and, at each turn, I expected to see the descent leading to this road that marked the final 10K back to start. I wanted to reach Suck Creek Road before the six and half hour mark, because I knew that this would allow me plenty of time to climb the final two punishing hills fast enough to finish in less than eight hours if I did not lose the plot.
I reached the Suck Creek Road with 6:25:00 on my watch and quickly drank a cup of Mountain Dew before climbing the first of the two harsh hill climbs. I passed more runners with a steady uphill pace, occasionally having to tap runners on the shoulder if they were wearing iPod headphones and could not hear me approach to pass on their left. I would have loved some music of my own to get me up the hill, but I was happy to talk to other runners briefly as we greeted one another. The first hill climb ended with a fun straightaway that took me to a series of switchbacks down to the swinging bridge leading to the final steep climb. Once again, I hoped that the boards of the swinging bridge would not break under my weight to shatter me on the rocks below.
At the other side of the bridge, the trail turned up for the painful hands-on-my-legs climb to the Mushroom Rock formation at the top. I enjoyed saying hello to a few runners along the way and putting more competition behind me, hoping that these runners would not catch me again once we got to the top. I finally reached Mushroom Rock in a bit of a daze and thought that one of the aid station volunteers was asking my name. When I responded, “Jason Rogers!”, everyone at the aid station laughed and the volunteer specified that he had asked what I needed, instead of asking my name. I thanked the volunteers for helping and grabbed a final handful of Gummi Bears to quickly walk up a gradual incline before breaking out into a run on the home stretch.
The final four miles are fun and relatively unchallenging, except for the minor frustration of the multiple “false finishes” where the trail appears to turn into the Signal Mountain High School grounds, only to veer back out into the middle of nowhere farther away from the destination. I passed by one runner who laughed wearily and said, “This trail is a real mother******, isn’t it?” I nodded to the affirmative and kept going with a smile. I walked a couple of long gradual hills, but also felt an increasing urgency as my watch time drew closer to the eight-hour mark. I picked up my pace even more when I realized that I might even have a chance to best my previous time of 8:49:14 by a full hour. With a new goal of 7:49:00 planted in my head, I raced a couple of long non-technical descents, waving at volunteers who blocked vehicles at the road crossings. As I passed a couple of runners after the final road crossing, one of them said, “Hey, I remember you from Mount Cheaha 50K. Man, you’ve lost a lot of weight!” I thanked him profusely for the encouragement and hurried along, desperate to meet my new goal.
When I emerged from the trail onto the road loop back to the finish, I looked down at my watch and saw 7:40:00. A volunteer assured me that I only had a half mile to go, so I worked through the pain and ran non-stop up a final cruel pavement hill before the road turned into the school grounds. The watch counted down and I sped up as I saw one of the Get Fit Atlanta runners, Mike, a hundred yards ahead. I heard people cheering my name as I turned the final curve to the finish, ran the final yards, and crossed at 7:46:14 to finish 275 out of 373 runners.
I had beaten my time goal, so my painful hobble after the finish was accompanied by a grin. I greeted a few fellow GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) runners as I limped to the Southern Burgers food stand for the hamburger that I had anticipated for so many miles. The sponsors were beginning to wind down and close their booths for the day, but I was overjoyed at my first experience of finishing a major 50K to find that the sponsors had not yet left.
A month earlier, when I had dropped out of Woods Ferry 24 at 15.5 miles with embarrassment and dizziness from my heat sickness, a friend had advised me, “Don’t let one single run define you.” I still took that advice to heart with my StumpJump medal around my neck, but I also realized that the times when I return home with a success make the disappointments more than worthwhile. I had regained my confidence after a tough summer of training and also rediscovered the sheer joy of trail running.
Thanks to Rock/Creek, Wild Trails, and the countless volunteers for making this an event that I’ll treasure for a long time and use as mental reinforcement during the tough times to come. It takes a lot of people to get a big guy like me through 31 miles of hilly trails, so the volunteers get credit for spending a beautiful Saturday at aid stations to help out the runners. Thanks as well to Mother Nature, for blessing us with sub-70-degree weather for most of this event.
StumpJump 50K was my best race to date, and this was an ultramarathon where everything came together almost flawlessly considering my current abilities. The forgiving weather, an improved race nutrition strategy, and the support of friends made this report a pleasure to write.
See you on the trails.