Mystery Mountain Marathon is organized by the Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS), and takes place every October at Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth, Georgia. This race, which takes its name from an 855-foot rock wall of unknown origin at the highest point of the race atop Fort Mountain, shows a total elevation gain of over 8,500 feet on typical GPS readings, and features dauntingly technical terrain where early fall season leaves often obscure the ankle-twisting rocks along the trails. Despite the challenges, Mystery Mountain Marathon is one of my favorite races, and I always look forward to a fun day on the trails with great friends, dedicated aid station volunteers, and beautiful fall colors. Many of my local running heroes also participate in this race every year, and I am always humbled and appreciative just to be present at the event.
This year, Mystery Mountain Marathon would serve as my final long-distance training run before my second attempt at Pinhoti 100 on November 3. I had completed the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race three weeks earlier and run the full course route of the hilly Atlanta Marathon the previous weekend, but my legs still felt fresh and rested on the morning of this event as I woke up in the middle of the night and drove two hours north to Fort Mountain State Park with Wilson, an ultrarunning friend who would be running this trail marathon for the first time.
At 176 pounds, I had finally reached a stopping point in my weight loss over the past several months by way of the Paleo Diet lifestyle. My own low-carb version of the Paleo lifestyle consists mostly of chicken or pork with fruits and vegetables, and I have found that this basic diet provides nutrients suitable for quick recovery from my recent series of long-distance running events during my training season. Before this year’s Mystery Mountain Marathon, however, I decided to address the problem of energy lows that have normally plagued me 10 to 15 miles into my long runs. Two days before this race, I loaded up on Paleo-friendly carbohydrate sources by eating a lot of fruit and sweet potatoes. I resumed my normal diet the day before the race, since I dislike eating large meals so close to an event, but I was full of energy as I greeted friends at the packet pickup area on race morning. I lined up in the middle of the crowd as Race Director Kim Pike gave pre-race instructions at the start line.
The marathon kicked off with the sound of cannon fire, and I ran with the crowd as we turned through campground parking lots on the way to the single-track trail. I am never one to let overconfidence get the best of me, but I still accelerated to a faster pace in the parking lot to pass several runners before the bottleneck at the trailhead. I ate a piece of ginger candy for some early sugar as I ran the first mile around a scenic campground lake, and enjoyed conversation as I settled into my place in the line of participants. After circling the lake, the course turned onto the Gahuti Trail, a technical rocky trail loop around the inner forest area of the park.
|Photo courtesy of Dustin Shelley/Liza AuYeung|
I ran nonstop for most of the first three miles, save for a few notable hill climbs. My pace was hampered somewhat by trail rocks that were slippery from a recent rain, but I ran along a pretty ledge trail at a decent clip with a handful of other runners at my heels, and reached the first major climb at a much faster time than in previous years. I ate a packet of Sport Beans at the half hour mark on my stopwatch while I made my way up rocky switchbacks. I knew that I would be at the first aid station within minutes to find a variety of food choices, but I wanted to take in more sugar than normal during the first several miles to prevent any energy lows and to maintain my positive frame of mind. When I did arrive at the first aid station, I drank a cup of Powerade and took a couple of orange slices as I started another steep climb to the Fort Mountain overlook, where vistas from several miles away can be seen on a clear day. Once I reached the scenic overlook, however, I simply kept running and circled the top of the mountain on a trail covered with boulders and tree roots that demanded concentration and prevented me from enjoying the views of mountains in the distance.
|Photo courtesy of Dustin Shelley/Liza AuYeung|
I made my way around the mountain followed by a friend with whom I had run at the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race, and we compared challenges of the trail rocks at the two events as we arrived at a steep climb to the Fort Mountain Stone Tower and passed a few runners on our way up. Once I reached the top, I ran down a series of dangerous stone steps at a fast, but careful pace, and allowed myself to be passed by two runners, confident that I might catch up with them on the subsequent series of trail hills. After passing a small crowd of cheering volunteers and high-fiving some children that stood beside the trail, I continued running nonstop up and down a couple of gradual inclines. I opened another pack of Sport Beans and put them into my mouth just before I made a turn and encountered a photographer that took my picture when I climbed the small flight of steps at a wooden overlook. Mildly annoyed at my inability to smile on account of the big mouthful of Sport Beans, I kept going as the Gahuti Trail left the populated mountain top areas and veered back into the forest, where I was welcomed by a terrain of sharp climbs and slippery descents.
For the next couple of miles, I leapfrogged a couple of runners by passing them on the uphill climbs only to have them pass me on the technical downhills. This is a frequent occurrence for me at trail races, since I can power-walk quickly up inclines, but am often timid when running down hills that are covered with rocks or tree roots. I climbed the hills at a consistent pace, though, and soon outdistanced the group of runners to find myself alone again. A rock band of teenagers, including the Race Director’s son, was a unique and welcome sight along a flat section in a marshy area along a low elevation point of the Gahuti Trail, and I waved to them as I ran past. After making my way up another series of hills, I arrived at the Park Entrance aid station on the eighth mile of the course. I was somewhat blanked out mentally from pacing myself faster than usual for the first eight miles and concentrating on the rocks, but I still thanked the volunteers as I put a couple of packets of chewable race candies in my pocket and drank two cups of Powerade. I emptied one of the electrolyte candy packets into my mouth and kept moving.
The last stretch of the Gahuti Trail is normally where I become discouraged and exhausted at this particular race event, but I was able to keep running with a smile this time around, probably due to the plentiful glycogen supply from my carbohydrate load two days prior and from my sugar intake so far in the race. My vision was somewhat blurred after miles of focusing my eyesight on trail obstacles, but I gradually remedied this problem by looking away from the trail up to the treetops when power-walking on the hills. After enjoying a luxuriously long downhill run, I crossed a park road and found myself behind a group of ultrarunning friends while I negotiated a rock-covered section. I enjoyed a long conversation with the friends ahead of me over the next mile, but I took off on my own in the lead after having to call them back when they started down a wrong trail. I wanted to keep the lead in front of this small group, so I power-walked up a rocky ascent as fast as I could before arriving at the Mile 11 aid station with a personal record time of two hours and 15 minutes. I said hello to a few volunteer friends, drank more Powerade, and turned back onto the trail with some orange slices and a section of banana. I had not intended to race Mystery Mountain Marathon outright, since I simply wanted to stay injury-free on this training run for Pinhoti 100 in three weeks, but I liked the idea of finishing the race with a sub-six-hour time. As such, I was pleased with my pacing so far.
The Power Line Trail now loomed in front of me like a death march straight up to the stars. There is nothing quite like standing at the bottom of the Power Line Trail and knowing that you have to climb it. I wasted no time, though, because I wanted to preserve my lead in front of my friends. I ran a short descent, jumped over a marshy water crossing, and power-walked with a spring in my step. I spotted a pair of runners farther up the hill and resolved to catch up with them before they reached the top. I reached the top with less effort than in years before, and turned on the trail right on the heels of these two runners. I was now on the 301 Loop Trail, a mountain biking path that circled the outer perimeter of Fort Mountain State Park and featured a number of strenuous hills and descents.
After running for a short while on a mostly flat ridge as a break from the Power Line climb, I reached the edge of my least favorite part of Mystery Mountain Marathon, a sharp rock-covered descent that drops roughly 1,200 feet in just one mile. As always on this section, I was afraid of slipping on one of the loose rocks and breaking an ankle or a leg, but I had no choice on this stretch but to throw caution to the wind and let gravity carry me down. I weigh 70 pounds lighter now than when I did last year at Mystery Mountain Marathon, but I am still intimidated by the technical downhills, and I run them as though I were still at my heavier weight. Praying that I would evade injury, I ran with short frantic steps and somehow managed to pass the two runners in front of me halfway down the hill. This rocky descent had a few deceptive turns, and I always thought that I was close to the bottom, only to run around a steep switchback and find that more long downhill sections were still ahead.
The terrain finally leveled off to a forgiving forest road, and I was happy to see friends at the Mile 13.3 Stables aid station. I completed the established routine of drinking two cups of Powerade and then taking some orange slices and bananas to eat as I quickly walked away from the station. I had not refilled my 70-ounce Camelbak yet and was happy that I still had plenty of water left. My new strategy of letting thirst guide my hydration instead of drinking before thirst had served me well at the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race three weeks before, and, once again, I found myself running better with less water in my body.
For the next several miles, I traveled up and down forest roads and followed the orange ribbon markings at the many intersections around the periphery of Fort Mountain. Caves, ravines, and abandoned mine shafts were a fun sight beside the jeep roads, but I was still moving at a faster-than-usual pace and did not take a lot of time to enjoy the views. I ran the flats and downhills without fail, but also found the energy to run up several of the hills when I wanted to reel in the occasional runner whom I saw in front of me. This section of forest roads was not effortless by any stretch, but I remained in a positive frame of mind and did not let fatigue get the better of me. I was in a hurry to put as many running miles behind me as I could before reaching the punishingly constant two-mile climb that began after Mile 19.
I reached the Far Out aid station at Mile 18.7 and, for the first time during this race, I had my Camelbak refilled with water by a volunteer. I was overjoyed to find a bowl full of Halloween gumdrops in the shape of pumpkins, since gumdrops are always a favorite treat for me at aid stations. I greedily crammed a handful of the gumdrops into my mouth and took another handful to carry with me as I waved goodbye to volunteer friends and left the aid station.
After running along an easy dirt road outside the park grounds, I followed the orange markings back onto park property and ran a series of rolling hills over the next half mile or so. When the temptation to stop and walk hit me, I reminded myself that I would be hiking for a long time as soon as I reached the big two-mile hill. This mentality allowed me to pass a couple of runners who were taking walk breaks on the mild climbs, and, when I did finally reach the foot of the massive hill, I was relieved to walk at long last.
This steep two-mile hill climbed relentlessly beside a creek, and the sounds of small waterfalls did little to assuage the physical hardship. Uphill power-walking is what I do best at races, though, and I passed a handful of others as I soldiered up to the top, reminding myself that each step brought me closer to the finish. I felt confident that a sub-six-hour time was in my grasp, and I mentally pushed the fast-forward button to walk faster as the trail became even steeper on a series of switchbacks beside one waterfall. I surprised myself by reaching the last part of the climb in just a half hour and running when the terrain occasionally flattened. Eventually, the sound of vehicles driving by on the main park road by the Last Gasp aid station at Mile 22.3 in the distance compelled me to go faster.
I was somehow coherent and happy when I reached the Last Gasp aid station and was told that I only had 3.9 miles left to go. I knew from previous Mystery Mountain Marathon experiences that this was the longest 3.9-mile distance in the world, but the sub-6-hour finish time carrot dangled in front of my face and kept me moving. The orange markers guided me up and down rolling hills on a jeep road where sporadic fallen tree branches threatened to trip my feet. I managed to run up a few hills in my haste, but I slowed to a fast hike on the final relentlessly long ascent after I passed an unmanned water stop at Mile 24.6.
|Photo courtesy of Dustin Shelley/Liza AuYeung|
This climb took me to the top of the Power Line Trail, where a couple of volunteers teased me about my fluorescent orange shirt providing excellent camouflage. I laughed as I took off down the hill and tried to ignore the painful battering of my quads. The volunteers egged me on to catch up with one runner in front of me. I passed this runner near the bottom of the hill and continued my nonstop run up a small incline to the Power Line aid station, where volunteers cheered me along. I called out my name and my race number as I ran past, and high-fived one volunteer as I made my way along the final mile that led around the campground lake once again back to the start/finish area. I sped up as I caught glimpses of the finish line from the other side of the lake, and the realization that I would finish well below the six-hour mark lit fires under my feet.
I emerged from the woods into the campground parking lot and crossed the finish line in 5:30:17, placing 39 out of 114 runners. Kim congratulated me as I crossed the finish line, but it took me a couple of seconds to pull myself together after my final sprint. I thanked everyone as I collected my finisher’s medal and beverage glass, and then sat down for a short while to cheer for others finishing the race.
This year’s Mystery Mountain Marathon was the second tough trail race in a row where I had performed at a level beyond my goals and expectations going into the event. I will never be confused for an elite runner, but my finish times are improving as I continue to learn new lessons and benefit from focused training. More than anything, though, I had a lot of fun at this year’s race, and did not suffer noticeably from energy drops or mental lows. Pinhoti 100 looms ahead in less than three weeks, and I could not have asked for a better final training run. Thanks to Kim Pike and the rest of the GUTS crowd for giving me the opportunity to push myself on some of the toughest marathon hills in the world.
See you on the trails.