Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chattooga River 50K 6/3/12 (Race Report)

On June 3, 2012, I completed the Chattooga River 50K with a finish time of 8:04:00.

Photo courtesy of Susan Donnelly
The Chattooga River 50K, like the Long Cane 50K that I finished a month ago, is one of the endearingly low-key donation-only races of the South Carolina Ultra Series founded by Race Director Terri Hayes.  This out-and-back race course in the mountains of South Carolina near the Georgia border challenges runners with daunting climbs and twisting switchbacks over tree roots and rocks on trails that occasionally overlook the Chattooga River from precariously steep ledges.  The predictions of merciful 82-degree temperatures for this weekend promised the coolest weather in the history of this normally-sweltering summer ultra event, but the comparably mild weather outlook did little to assuage my apprehension about running this course that has become notorious for its two ten-mile sections without water stops and for its history of sending talented runners home with ankle injuries or heat exhaustion.

Thankfully, my concerns about the Chattooga River 50K were outmatched by a newfound confidence in my ultrarunning abilities.  I had achieved a new personal record at the 50K distance with my finish at the Long Cane race in May, and I would be lining up for the start of this event at 223 pounds, the lowest weight of my long-distance running career over the past three years.  As I rode up to South Carolina with accomplished veteran ultrarunner Richard Schick and enjoyed his stories of races from past decades, I was eager to put my improved running capability to the test at a race that I had wanted to run since I first joined the ultrarunning community.  We arrived in South Carolina early on Saturday afternoon, and, since Terri Hayes had selflessly held the same race on both days of the weekend to accommodate all runners after the event filled to capacity for the original Sunday date, we decided to pass time by visiting the campground to cheer for the Saturday finishers.  I went for a preliminary stroll along a couple of miles of the race course to scout the terrain and take photos before we left the campground for our hotel.

On the morning of the race, I woke up early for a Paleo Diet breakfast of sweet potatoes and canned chicken breast, since that same breakfast menu had served me so well at my previous ultramarathon.  Richard and I arrived at the campground start area just before daylight and spent the next hour greeting friends and listening to Terri give a detailed pre-race introduction that outlined a few tricky turns along the race course and emphasized the need for adequate hydration for the two long stretches of the trail that were inaccessible to aid stations.  A local running friend, Thomas, had brought some ivory ribbons to the race so that we could all wear one to celebrate the life of Angela Ivory, a brave and kind ultrarunner acquaintance who had lost her battle to cancer days before.  As I tied one of these ribbons to the Road ID around my right wrist, I reminded myself how fortunate I was to be in the company of friends old and new at each of these events.  I settled into the back of the pack of runners with a smile as the race started, and broke into an easy jog along a campground gravel road before the course veered into the woods on a single-track trail.

The first three and half miles of the Chattooga River 50K take runners along the Winding Stairs Trail, a leisurely path of downhill switchbacks that descend roughly 1,000 feet to the turnaround point at a forest road.  I was content to run with a restrained pace to conserve energy for the inevitable climb back up this same trail, and I enjoyed spending time with a group of friends who were following the same plan.  Easy downhill trails often cater to complacency, as I discovered when I tripped over a high leaf-obscured tree root for the first of many times on this course and fell down on the trail.  As the runners ahead of me expressed concern, I stood up unhurt, save for my dignity, and assured them that I was okay as I brushed dirt off my arms and resumed my run.  My sprawl was instantly forgotten in the joy of running downhill on this beautiful trail through the bright green trees of early summer.  I told the nearby runners that I was giving this race course an A+ grade so far, and was answered by good-natured gallow jokes about how that grade might change when we had to go back uphill on the same route.  Our descent seemed to continue indefinitely, and, as we all lost count of the multiple switchbacks that we were running down, I began to strategize about how I would approach the gradual climb back to the top.  We reached the gravel road turnaround at the bottom of the Winding Stairs Trail just minutes after I had eaten my first gel at the half hour mark, and I took advantage of the sugar boost by starting my uphill climb at a running pace.

I remained in back of the small group of friends as we ran back up the Winding Stairs Trail, but found that I was often able to keep up with the group by walking deliberately on the steeper sections while most of them kept running.  For the most part, though, I stuck to a gentle run and was relieved to find that my uphill running did not take a toll on my energy level.  I remembered a useful mantra from my earlier trail running days, “If it feels like work, then you’re working too hard.”  The gradual run/walk up the hill did not feel like work, so I was confident that this 1,000-foot climb so early in the race would not exhaust me before the tougher trail terrain that was soon to come.  I kept my eyes on the trail, mindful of hidden tree roots after my earlier fall, but also enjoyed the scenery of mountain laurel along the banks that bordered the trail switchbacks and the sound of waterfalls from an adjacent stream.  My left hip and IT band were aching slightly due to tightness along the hip that has bothered me for the past couple of races, but the dull ache never intensified.

I reached the top of the Winding Stairs Trail and followed the course markings to the first aid station next to a paved highway crossing, pleased that I had finished the first seven miles in just under an hour and half, despite the 1,000-foot elevation climb.  The temperature was pleasant in the morning hours, but I still took the time to refill my Camelbak hydration pack to capacity, since the next aid station was ten miles away.  After helping myself to two cups of Powerade sports drink, I refastened my Camelbak and took off across the road to the Big Bend Trail that led to the Chattooga River.  I was now alone for the most part, since I had left a couple of runners in my group behind at the aid station, but was able to spot some faster runners ahead of me on occasion when the trail opened up into longer straightaways.  My vision was starting to become slightly blurry, since I had spent the past hour and half looking down at the trail in front of my feet with concentration during the extended running stretches.  Fortunately, the terrain of the Big Bend Trail consisted of a few hills conducive to walk breaks, during which I looked up at the leaves above me to alleviate my blurred vision by removing my focus from the tree roots in my path.  After a couple of miles, my vision improved.  

I caught up with one runner near the end of the Big Bend Trail as I heard the rapids of the Chattooga River close by.  We continued past a wooden bridge that marked the junction of the Big Bend Trail with the Foothills Trail that the course would follow for the next several miles.  I took note of the prominent white blazes on the trees along the Foothills Trail and eagerly made my way to the river.  The beginning of the Foothills Trail marked the end of easy trail running landscapes, and I soon found myself navigating steeper climbs and descents that were often lined by wooden boards as the trail twisted and turned along ledges that overlooked the gentle river rapids below.  Boulders and rocky crevices often lined the trail to my left as occasional scenic views of the river opened up to my right.  

The Chattooga River is one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in the Southeast, and the sight of the small waterfalls and clear water below the trail brought a smile to my face.  The canoeing scenes from the 1972 movie, Deliverance, had been filmed just a few miles downstream from where I was now running, and the river landscapes looked identical to those scenes even 40 years later.  I quickly decided that the Foothills Trail was the most remarkable trail section that I had seen during any of my ultramarathons so far.

Photo courtesy of Susan Donnelly
 The idyllic river scenery alleviated any psychological fatigue from negotiating tree roots and occasional slippery rocks along the ledges, and, although I was now taking more walk breaks, I was able to keep running nonstop even on a few of the milder inclines.  At one point, I arrived at the crest of a steep descent where the winding trail turned in steep switchbacks down to the river a long way below me.  The runner who had kept me company along the Foothills Trail so far started telling stories about how this area reminded him of the Colorado trails where he had grown up.  Since I have never traveled out west, I enjoyed the stories as I continued to take in views of the current landscape during the run.  I was reminded of the need for caution when my foot slipped briefly on a wet rock along one steep ledge during a walk break, but most of this trail was quite runnable without any real hazards.  

The other runner and I reached the top of a climb that led briefly away from the river, and then enjoyed a very long downhill run that led along switchbacks taking us gradually back down to the river bank.  I appreciated the ease of this fun descent, but I was also nervous about having to climb back up this hill in a few hours on the trip back to the finish.  The challenges of the Foothills Trail terrain were already evident during the mid-morning hours, so I shuddered to think of how I would handle these trails in the opposite direction later on in the heat of the afternoon during my second trip through this ten-mile stretch without an aid station.  I continued my brisk running pace along a mostly-flat riverside section at the bottom of the hill and soon found myself alone again.  The trail meandered alongside campsites on the bank before turning away from the river again for a steep climb.

With my new low running weight of 223 pounds, I was still walking up the steep inclines, but there was a more deliberate bounce to my step that carried me up the hills with less energy expenditure.  The benefits of my grueling weekday workout routine, where I power-walk on a 10% treadmill incline at an anaerobic heart rate pace for an hour after work Monday through Thursday, were now evident in my running performance.  I will never be an elite ultrarunner, since my skills at running technical rocky trail sections are still clumsy in comparison to those who finish in the top ranks of these races, but my ability to run nonstop for longer stretches and to climb hills with less energy demand is slowly, but surely improving.  As I made my way to the top of the Foothills Trail climb away from the river and resumed running on a gratifying flat section on top of a ridge, I remained in good spirits and continued taking in every moment of the vibrant green forest scenery.

Another long and winding descent on switchback trails reminded me that the inevitable trip back up this trail in the opposite direction later on was going to punish my resolve, but I kept running happily and relishing the energy from each gel that I ate on every half hour mark.  The next couple of miles of trail could best be described as tree roots on top of tree roots on top of tree roots.  The only downside of my Mountain Masochist running shoes is that the bottoms of my feet become quite sensitive to pointy obstacles after several miles of a long trail race, so I occasionally winced as I stepped on particularly unforgiving roots.  I smiled when I spotted a gravel road on the trail ahead of me and knew that I was close to the long-awaited aid station, but the smile left my face when I emerged onto the gravel only to find a remote forest road parking lot with a sign indicating that I still had some distance left to go on the Foothills Trail before reaching the main highway where the aid station was located.

I did not experience any mental lows of note during this entire race, thanks to sound nutrition choices and pacing strategies, but I did become admittedly grumpy during this mile and half stretch to the aid station.  I kept convincing myself that I heard cars from the highway over the next hill, only to reach the top of that hill and discover that the trail continued to wind along over endless tree roots with no clearing in sight.  The false car sounds always turned out to be wind noises or running water from nearby streams.  I kept running for long stretches between steep inclines as the trail passed campsites and wooden bridges, and was relieved when I saw the first couple of leading runners on their way back in the opposite direction and was reassured that I was on the right path.  When a friend passed by in the opposite direction while I was climbing a steep series of wooden erosion steps, I laughed wearily and asked, “Is there an aid station in my future?”  During one brief moment of irritated exasperation, I noticed the Angela Ivory ribbon tied around my Road ID wristband and reminded myself that I had no reason to complain on such a great day when I was alive and well on a beautiful trail.

The Mile 17 aid station eventually appeared after I paid a toll in fatigue by climbing up a lengthy elevation of several hundred feet to the highway crossing.  I ascertained that my comical irritability over the past mile and half on the way to the aid station was a sign of slightly insufficient fueling that could quickly lead to a real psychological low point if I did not address the issue with more sugar intake in addition to the 100-calorie gels that I had been eating every half hour, so I downed an impressive four cups of Powerade at the aid station as a friendly volunteer refilled my Camelbak with water.  I stuffed a large handful of Gummi Bears into my mouth and made short work of them before leaving the aid station.  On my way out of the aid station, I grabbed a handful of gumdrops from another bowl, thanked the volunteers profusely, and told them I would be back soon, since the next two miles of trail led to a turnaround.  

For the most part, the two miles of trail to the turnaround consisted of gentle downhill runs along switchbacks.  I was dreading the climb back up this trail from the turning point, but I tried my best to greet the faster runners with a smile as they climbed up in the opposite direction.  My spirits were lifted to see a few friends whom I was not as far behind on the course as I had imagined.  The aid station volunteer had added some ice into my Camelbak with the water, and this cold water was incredibly refreshing at this point in my race.  I took occasional sips from the Camelbak, and then blew into the Camelbak valve so that all the water would return to the main hydration bladder instead of warming up in the plastic tube that was draped over my shoulder.  The positive effects of my sugar feast at the aid station started to show by the time I reached the wooden bridge that marked the turnaround point, and I felt a renewed energy as I began to power-walk the series of switchbacks that climbed roughly 600 feet for the two miles back to the aid station.   I encouraged runners whom I encountered going in the opposite direction on their way to the turnaround behind me and even posed for a photo or two when friends passed by.   After a long, but uneventful climb, I reached the peak of the climb where the aid station awaited me once again.

Photo courtesy of David Ray
 This final aid station stop was located at Mile 21, and I had just over ten miles of hot afternoon trail hills along the same Chattooga River section that I had finished an hour ago.  My Paleo lifestyle is tweaked for long-distance running when I know that my body will instantly utilize any quick-sugar foods that I eat.  As such, I enjoyed more cups of Powerade and another handful of Gummi Bears while the volunteers refilled my Camelbak.  When asked if I wanted ice in my Camelbak this time, I politely declined and simply told them to refill with water.  As much as I loved the ice-cold water, I knew that I would need all available Camelbak capacity for water during my return trip in the rising temperatures.  I also doubted that my 70-ounce Camelbak capacity would last me the next ten or eleven miles until the finish line.  I would be running alongside the Chattooga River and alongside streams for the remainder of the race, but I had no means to treat any water if I chose to refill from one of those sources.  I asked a volunteer how many Powerade bottles they had behind the aid station table and was grateful when he told me that they had plenty of bottles and that I could take as many as I wanted for my return trip.  I took one 20-ounce Powerade bottle to carry along with my full Camelbak before grabbing a handful of gumdrops, thanking the volunteers again, and running out of the aid station.

I decided to name my 20-ounce Powerade bottle, “Chucky”, because I knew that it would be my friend till the end.  With Chucky in hand, I ran down several feet of trail switchbacks lined with tree roots, relieved that this particular section was so much easier going down than coming up.  The tree roots and trail turns that seemed never to end did not annoy me on the return trip, since my spirits were high from the sugar and nutrition that I had taken in during the two out-and-back visits to the aid station.  The dull ache in my hip and IT band that had made itself known during the early miles of my race had not intensified and, in fact, seemed to be lessening.  Despite the warmer temperatures, I had not needed any of the Hammer Endurolyte capsules from my pack, because my legs never cramped.   I passed the forest road parking lot again and readied myself for the constant hill climbs that were coming up on the return trip to the river.  

I passed a couple of friends shortly after the forest road and, after joking with them for a few minutes, continued alone as the hills intensified.  As during my two most recent ultramarathons, I passed every runner whom I encountered during the last ten miles of the trail.  Each new encounter put an added spring in my step as I took solace in losing sight of each runner over my shoulder on the hills.  I knew that I would not place highly on the finishers list of Chattooga River 50K, since this race attracts so many highly-talented runners, but I was overjoyed to be running well during this final section when I had expected a slow death march.  A massive climb up switchbacks on the way to the river went by faster than I imagined, and I was happy to hear the sounds of the rapids once again as I ran the flat section on the ridge before heading downhill to the riverbank.   When I reached section of the Foothills Trail adjacent to the river, I finally finished all of my Powerade from the bottle, but was confident that my full water supply in the Camelbak would get me back to the campground.  I carried Chucky along, since there were no trash receptacles in this remote area and since there was a small chance that I might need to refill the empty bottle with untreated water from the river in the event of a worst-case scenario.  

Photo courtesy of Viktor Trukov
The beauty of the Chattooga River made an impression on me once again, and I was thankful to be participating in such an amazing 50K trail race.  I had decided that the Chattooga River 50K was my favorite 50K race that I had run to date, because, while the race was a severe beatdown in certain sections with hill climbs and technical tree root trails, there were no “un-runnable” parts of the course and every stretch along the route allowed runners to make the best of their individual pacing abilities.  This race was truly something else.

I caught up with another runner just before one punishing hill climb away from the river, and enjoyed a conversation with him as he told me about completing a hike of the entire Appalachian Trail a few years ago.  This particular elevation that I had feared so much when I ran down it earlier in the race took a while to complete, but I enjoyed running the milder parts of the climb.  On the way back down to the river, the other runner and I encountered a friend who was limping along with an injured ankle.  I wished him well and continued along, thankful that the tree roots had not wrecked my ankle in a similar way.  I took advantage of the long downhill to make up some time, realizing that I had a good chance of finishing this race in less than eight hours.  I was eager to finish the race, but I was almost sad to leave the scenery of the Chattooga River area.  I ran the flats and downhills with a careful eye for the tree roots, but enjoyed the glimpses of the river to my left during the uphill climbs.  

After I left the Foothills Trail to return on the Big Bend Trail, I quickened my pace, undistracted by scenery now that I was away from the river.  I still had water in my Camelbak with less than four miles back to the finish, but I was unsure of how much was left and I still did my best to conserve the water when I was tempted to drink more.  This section of the trail seemed much longer on the way back than it had earlier in the race and, once again, I found myself hoping for signs of a road when I thought that I heard noises from automobiles.  My stopwatch counted down relentlessly, and I pushed past fatigue when I saw that I only had a half hour left until the eight-hour mark.  I remembered particular landmarks from the earlier trip down this trail in the opposite direction, and knew that I was on the right path, but occasionally ambled through landscapes that I did not remember and wondered when I would ever reach the road.  I finally did cross the highway to find a pile of empty water bottles from an unmanned water station at the trail entrance.  I threw Chucky, the empty Powerade bottle, into the trash pile, thankful for the added sports drink that had given me energy when I had needed it at the beginning of the return trip, and continued down the trail for the last half mile of the race.

A trail marker pointing to the finish was a sight for sore eyes when I reached the bottom of the final hill and made a turn for the campground.  I waved at a few onlookers as I emerged from the trail onto the short stretch of gravel campground road and sprinted to the end where friends cheered me on at the finish line.  I had run the Chattooga River 50K in 8:04:00 and placed 31 out of 51 finishers.

I thanked Terri Hayes for an incredible race and sat down on a camp chair by the picnic area, surprised to find that I had a few sips left in my Camelbak.  I filled a plate with grilled chicken and watermelon slices while congratulating some of my friends who had already arrived at the finish.  Two longtime ultrarunning friends, David Ray and Jason Sullivan, had both finished shortly ahead of me, and I had fun comparing notes about the race with both of them.  After a few minutes of storytelling, I enjoyed a shower from one of the new campground facilities, said goodbye to the crowd, and relaxed in the passenger seat of Richard’s van for the ride back to Atlanta.  

Photo courtesy of Viktor Trukov
I have completed 33 marathons and ultramarathons to date, and consider the Chattooga River 50K to be my favorite 50K event so far and one of my favorite races overall.  The Chattooga River 50K was a rugged, but beautiful, adventure, and my utmost respect goes to all of those who have finished this race before in much hotter summer temperatures.  I am sure that I will have my chance to tackle this race in typical June weather when I sign up for it again in years to come.  Thanks to Terri Hayes and the South Carolina Ultra Series crowd of volunteers for a truly memorable race weekend.  

See you on the trails.



  1. Great report Jason! I was pumped to have you come up and enjoy some of the Foothills Trail. Congratulations again on all of your weight loss and training!

  2. Congrats, Jason! Sounds like everything is coming together for you. And I love that you named your water bottle! : )

  3. Good one bro! I was really glad to see you coming in looking strong at the finish. You're getting it dialed in for sure. Nice work!