Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mystery Mountain Marathon 10/9/11 (Race Report)

On October 9, 2011, I completed my third Mystery Mountain Marathon with a finish time of 6:42:45 and improved on my previous year’s finish by almost 40 minutes.

Photo courtesy of Russ Johnson
Mystery Mountain Marathon takes place every October at Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth, Georgia, and draws its name from an ancient 855-foot rock wall at the top of the mountain.   The rock wall is thought to have been built by Native Americans for ceremonial purposes, but other theories of its origin are outlined on the plaques around the state park.  Most of us who participate in this race, however, know that the real mystery is whether or not we will finish in one piece.  Mystery Mountain Marathon is a truly rugged course that combines rocky technical terrain with over 8,500 feet of elevation gain.  Grueling uphill stretches that sometimes go on for miles are matched in intensity by sharp descents that can wreak havoc on a runner’s quads, if the runner is fortunate enough to avoid stumbling on the loose rocks and scree.  

A race with the above description may not seem fun, but Mystery Mountain Marathon is my favorite race, and it is always a highlight of my year.  For those of us who believe that life begins at the end of our comfort zone, the harshness of the trail terrain is all the more satisfying, and the sight of first-time runners crossing the finish with smiles on their faces makes the challenge worthwhile to all involved.  GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) does a superb job sponsoring this race each year with the utmost attention given to safety and celebration.  Aid station volunteers dressed in Halloween costumes always seem to greet the runners at just the right times, and the unique race awards (pint glasses, ingeniously-designed race shirts, and, in this year’s case, hand-crafted finishers medals) make runners eager to revisit the course each year.  The race date invites a variety of weather conditions, and my own experiences have ranged from the amazing 68-degree temperature highs of 2009, to the unseasonably hot 82-degree sun in 2010, to, finally, the comfortable 76-degree overcast weather this year.  I achieved my course record in 2009 by finishing in 6:18:01, but my decision to run this race the week after StumpJump 50K in subsequent years has resulted in slower finish times.  The rewards of an epic October on the trails, however, are too great for me to miss, and I always look forward to seeing how my body handles the beatdown of Mystery Mountain Marathon the week after another long distance race. 

The challenges of the Fort Mountain trails seemed especially daunting on the morning of the race this year, because I had beaten my previous year’s finish at StumpJump 50K by over an hour the weekend before, then followed that race with several miles of additional training over the next few days for a 60-mile week as I trained for an upcoming 100-mile race.  To say that I did not properly taper for Mystery Mountain Marathon would be an understatement.  I still felt excited as I woke up early on the morning of the race and drove two hours north from Atlanta to arrive at Fort Mountain State Park in the predawn darkness, but I made a promise to myself to use this year’s event as a simple training run with no particular time goal in mind.  

Photo courtesy of Russ Johnson
Local trail races are like family reunions, and I enjoyed talking to fellow GUTS runners and meeting new friends at the race start.  A friend, Michael, kindly lent me an extra stopwatch when I discovered that my Garmin watch was not functioning.  The race distance readings on a Garmin are negligible at best for this race, due to the elevation changes at Fort Mountain, but I needed a timer to ensure that I ate a gel every 30 minutes, and Michael’s stopwatch allowed me to stick to my nutrition plan.  I lined up at the back of the pack as Race Director Kim Pike addressed the crowd of runners, and ran across the parking lot at a leisurely pace as the race started with a bang.

The first mile of Mystery Mountain Marathon has a “calm before the storm” effect as runners circle a lake on a flat trail before crossing over a road to the Gahuti Trail, a stretch of multiple hill climbs and descents over tree roots and boulders that forms the first loop of the course.  During the initial miles of the race, my pace was admittedly sluggish, as I walked up the short hills and took my time accelerating into a run when the trail evened out.  I joked with a friend, Samantha, and promised I would actually run at some point.  In truth, I was feeling tired from the very beginning and knew that my high training mileage in the days leading to this race had left me poorly equipped to go the full distance of this race.  I alternated Honey Stinger Gold gels with chocolate Accel gels every half hour, but the nutrition schedule provided no early boost.  My left knee was also aching and, by the time I reached the first aid station at the foot of an overlook trail, I was already considering cutting the race short after the first loop and finishing with the Mystery Mountain 12-Mile participants.  

As I followed Samantha and a handful of other runners to the beautiful overlook of Fort Mountain and turned the corner on a scenic trail of multiple rock steps, my legs felt like lead weights and I flinched every time my foot came down off one of the steps to the ground below.  I was amazed at how I could feel so buoyant and energetic at StumpJump 50K the week before, only to be constantly fatigued on this particular morning.  Misery loves company, though, and I enjoyed listening to the colorful commentary that some of the other runners had for this same terrain.  We turned off the scenic trail bluff, made a steep uphill climb to the very top of Fort Mountain, and ran out into a clearing to the rock tower at the highest elevation point.  I gave a high-five to a friend, Joel, who was cheering runners from beside the tower, and then started a treacherous descent down a set of stone stairs next to the mysterious rock wall.  I ran down the stairs at a decent clip, but still imagined my legs crumbling with each extended step down to the next rock.  After I reached the bottom of the steps and waved to volunteers, the trail became pleasingly runnable for the next mile, and I took advantage of the opportunity to speed along without the threat of giant boulders to break my fall.  

Photo courtesy of Russ Johnson
The backside portion of the first loop is marked by multiple short climbs and steep downhills that eventually cycle down into a marshy area with occasional wooden bridges.  I heard music on the trail ahead and smiled when I turned a corner to see a group of teenagers, one of whom was the Race Director’s son, playing their instruments, drums, guitar, and all, next to the trail as runners clapped and sped by.  More hills greeted me as I continued behind a small group of runners and climbed out of the marshy areas up to some picturesque fall landscapes near the park entrance road.  Even when I am suffering from fatigue, beautiful scenery from a trail never fails to remind me how fortunate I am to be outside and participating in a race.  With yellow leaves overhead, I emerged onto the park road and grabbed a cup of Coke at the second aid station.  The temperatures were still low enough early in the day that I had conserved my water and did not need to stop and refill my Camelbak at the first two stations.  I moved on quickly, leaving a couple of runners at the aid station behind me, and slowly started the section that would conclude the initial loop.

Photo courtesy of Daina Denning
I ran next to a friend, Len, and commented to him that I was debating ending my race along with the 12-milers.  My left knee was feeling better, now that I was warmed up from miles of running and climbing, but my energy was still low.  I did not feel that there would be any disgrace with a decision to cut the race short, since my personal course record at StumpJump 50K had taken a lot out of me.  On the other hand, though, I needed the full distance as a part of my training for Pinhoti 100, so that I could scale down in mid-October and start tapering before the 100 in November.  As I followed Samantha and the other runners to the Mile 11 aid station, I decided that I needed to complete the full marathon.  Even if I ran out of energy and had a completely sucktastic finish time, I would still have the solid hill training under my belt that I really needed.  

The Mile 11 aid station volunteers cheered me up as I refilled my Camelbak for the first time and grabbed a handful of strawberry hard candies for the power line hill climb.  The power line hill, a massive stretch of trail that seemed to climb vertically into the heavens, loomed directly ahead of me, and the runners in the distance who were close to the top looked like specks of dust.  The only way to ascend the power line hill is to concentrate on one foot in front of the other.  I managed to pass a few runners as I climbed, and as I soldiered up the steepest final half, the sight of others falling farther behind invigorated me to climb faster.  A volunteer who sat at the top with a book directed me to the right, and I broke out into a slow run for couple of hundred yards before reaching the most difficult portion of Mystery Mountain Marathon, the Mile 12 descent that barrels 1,200 feet in just one mile to the bottom of Fort Mountain.  

Photo courtesy of Ray Swords
The Mile 12 downhill, which looks like a vertical descent on the elevation chart, gives new meaning to the phrase, “quad killer”.  The descent starts out in a low-key manner down a grassy mountain bike trail covered with short grass and small fixed rocks, but quickly turns an unforgiving loose surface of scree and boulders.  All the while, the treetops below in the distance never seem to get any closer.  I ran this section as fast as possible in my hesitant technical downhill style, since I am always self-conscious about my knees collapsing under my weight on steep downgrades.  I planned each step along the way to minimize the chances of catching my toe on a rock and possibly tumbling several feet in a bloody mess.  I also occasionally galloped down the trail in a skipping style or ran with my legs far apart, almost bowlegged, to improve my balance.  Despite my clumsy mannerisms, I somehow managed to pass one runner on the way to the bottom.

When I finally did reach the jeep roads at the bottom of Fort Mountain, my knees and quads thanked me, but I was still numbingly tired.  I arrived at the halfway point aid station, relieved to see some friends, Mike, Jeff, and Perry, working the supplies.  When Perry told me that I was doing well and that I was ahead of cutoffs, I joked with him that I had been sort of hoping to be cut off at that point.  I refilled my Camelbak for the tough six-mile uninterrupted stretch of jeep road hills that lay ahead, and took off down the trail with an unfamiliar runner at my side.  

This runner, who introduced himself as Bob, ran the downhills and power-walked the climbs with a seemingly effortless style that matched his easygoing humorous demeanor.  It was no surprise to find out that Bob was a fellow Marathon Maniac who completed multiple marathon races and, in fact, was on his second round of completing marathons in all 50 states.  I felt my energy pick up as I kept company with Bob, and I realized that our pace was fast enough to hit the next aid station much faster than expected.  I eventually slowed down on the hills while Bob ran ahead, but I kept him in sight for a long time as we both occasionally passed other runners.  

This jeep road stretch that kicks off the final half of the race is a psychological assault where the hills appear to crest before climbing back down, only to climb steeply on the other side of hidden curves.  The terrain is pleasant enough with its relatively non-technical nature, but the sheer amount of repetitive climbing cycles seems never-ending.   The sight of obscured mining camps and caves always gave me something else to think about, though, and I enjoyed the distractions.  After a lifetime climbing the jeep road hills, I finally reached the downward journey, by way of technical loose rock jeep roads, where leaves and small ferns obscured obstacles.  I ran continuously, though, since I was in a hurry to reach the next aid station before the five-hour mark on my stopwatch.  As my stopwatch read 4:45 hours and I trailed some other runners, I finally reached the next station, where fellow GUTS runner, Phil, and some other volunteers waited, one of them dressed in an alien costume with a light saber.
I refilled my Camelbak in preparation for the brutal two-mile hill climb soon to come.  Another runner asked me about “The Hill” and I told him that, if he had to ask whether or not it was “The Hill”, then it wasn’t “The Hill”.  I was experiencing a good second wind at this point and knew that my nutrition schedule of a gel every half hour was working for me.  The going was slow for the next mile, though, as my Montrail Mountain Masochist shoes stepped on occasional pointed rocks that made me wince with pain.  The trail turned away from the aid station onto a dirt road and then returned to a brief stretch of jeep roads that were covered in stinging nettle bushes.  I felt the stinging briefly, but mentally rubbed dirt on the irritation and kept going.  I wanted to run as much as possible, because I knew that a long walk on the big hill was soon to come. 

I followed trail markings to the right and finally arrived at the foot of the hill.  I looked up the first punishing stretch to see the familiar sight of a runner with a blonde ponytail, and knew that I had caught up with my friend, Aaron.  I yelled his name, then plodded up the hill to where he and another GUTS friend, Frank, climbed ahead.  I took a minute or two to say hello, then went ahead on the steep hill, certain that Aaron and Frank would catch up with me in due time.  

This massive hill that relentlessly spirals upward beside a beautiful mountain stream for a couple of miles seemed easier for me this year, but I still took deliberately short baby steps to conserve energy and focused on attainable landmarks every hundred yards or so.  Along the way, I passed a couple more runners and joked with them that we were getting our money’s worth with this race.  I climbed steadily and eventually reached the marshy fern terrain where the trail terrain changed from relentlessly steep inclines to moderate leaf-covered hills beside creeks and occasional wooden bridges.  I knew that the Last Gasp aid station was waiting in less than a mile, but I could not summon the energy to run the hills just yet.  My newly altered race strategy of avoiding S-Caps was still working, just as it had during the previous week’s StumpJump 50K, but I was silently praying that my legs would not start cramping as I climbed.  I had some Hammer Endurolytes in my Camelbak, but I did not want to use them unless absolutely necessary.
I finally encountered a few flat stretches and short descents that enabled me to run at a reasonable pace, and I was overjoyed to be approaching the Last Gasp aid station next to the park road before the six-hour mark on my stopwatch.  I finally arrived at the station, where a friend, Robert, informed me that I only had 3.9 miles left to go.  I refilled my Camelbak for the last time, took more strawberry hard candies, and began the final portion of Mystery Mountain Marathon.  I was happy to encounter Bob, with whom I had caught up, at this aid station, but he and another runner soon raced out ahead of me on the fast downhill leading away from the aid station.  I kept my race inside my own head and ran steadily at a good pace, so I was able to keep these runners in distant sight for a long time.  

The portion of Mystery Mountain Marathon from the Last Gasp aid station to an unmanned water stop at a campground road was forgivingly non-technical, and I took advantage of the opportunity to pick up pace, realizing that I had a good shot at finishing this race in less than seven hours.  I dispensed with my resolve to treat this race as a training run, and decided that I wanted to pull a decent finish out of my hat after all.  My enthusiasm and my ability to run for longer stretches gave me a new confidence as I reached the unmanned campground road aid station table and passed it without stopping.  The final punishing hill climb that curved back and forth to the top of a crest overlooking the power line hill went by slowly, but surely, as I ate my last gel and moved forward with resolve.  

I reached the crest of the hill, entered a clearing under the overcast sky, and looked down the never-ending descent down the power line hill that I had climbed up hours earlier.  I broke out into a slow careful run on the steep portion, but eventually picked up my pace when I heard volunteers from the aid station calling my name.  Just before I reached the aid station, Ed, a veteran 100-mile runner, caught up with me, and I decided to keep up with him to the finish.  We ran the final mile around the lake with me struggling to keep pace, and talked about our strategies for Pinhoti 100.  Cheers from the finish area spurred us onward, and we made our last turn around the lake and through the woods to emerge into the parking area.  I crossed the finish just behind Ed to complete my third Mystery Mountain Marathon in 6:42:45, placing 68 out of 89 finishers.  

Photo courtesy of Candy Findley
I picked up my MMM pint glass and one of the handmade wooden medals that Aaron had generously completed for all of the runners in the days leading up to the race, then made my way to the food tables, where friends congratulated me.  My third year finish for what has become my favorite race event was now behind me and, as tired as I was, I already missed the Fort Mountain trails.  I changed into comfortable clothes, hung out at the finish area for another half hour to welcome other finishers, then climbed into my truck for the drive home.
I looked forward to reaching the bottom of Fort Mountain as I drove down the curvy road back to Chatsworth, where I knew that a convenience store with a cold Diet Coke would hit the spot while I parked to update my Facebook with my race results.  My Mystery Mountain Marathon adventure was not quite over, though.

Photo courtesy of Kerry Dycus
When I finally reached the bottom of the long road back to Chatsworth from the mountain, I drove by a couple who was ambling alongside the road and I noticed that they were both wearing race numbers.  I quickly turned my truck around, pulled up beside the runners, and asked if they were lost.  I found out that the couple had taken a wrong turn just after the Mile 18 aid station and run the wrong way down a dirt road, where they ended up going for several more miles off the course.   They both broke into smiles when I told them that I would drive them back to the race finish area.  I took them back up to Fort Mountain State Park to the finish area, where they could check in with the Race Director so that all runners could be accounted for before volunteers went home.   I drove down the mountain a second time and finally reached a convenience store and a cold Diet Coke.  

Thanks to the GUTS crowd for another wonderfully epic Mystery Mountain Marathon.  This is a rough race course that several runners compare to a 50-mile ultra, but I cannot recommend the experience enough for anyone looking for a day spent on beautiful trails in October, when the leaves are starting to change.  Hopefully, the possibility of my returning to this course in 2012 for a fourth year in a row is no mystery at all.  

See you on the trails.


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

StumpJump 50K 10/1/11 (Race Report)

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.

Photo courtesy of StumpJump 50K
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. 

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Gelinas
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.

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Gelinas
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.

Photo courtesy of Wendy Grant Oates
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.

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Gelinas
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. 

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Gelinas
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.