On October 13, 2013, I finished the Mystery Mountain 12 Mile in 3:06:04, and enjoyed my first pain-free trail run after several months of injury.
|Photo courtesy of Lisa Montreuil|
The Mystery Mountain Marathon and 12-Miler races, which are organized by the Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS), take place every October at Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth, Georgia. This event, which takes its name from an 855-foot rock wall of unknown origin at the highest point of the course, is my favorite Georgia trail race because of its scenic views at the beginning of leaf season and because of the fun camaraderie between the runners and the dedicated volunteers.
I have enjoyed running the full Mystery Mountain Marathon course over the past four years, but I reluctantly decided to scale down to the 12-miler race this year so that I could continue to recover from a heel injury and get back in shape after several mostly-sedentary months of physical and mental recharging. After almost four years of running ultramarathons and marathons on a monthly basis, I found out the hard way that my body will force me to take a break one way or another if I do not take time off voluntarily. I will not bore anyone with the gloomy specifics of my downward trajectory of fitness over the past few months, except to say that a series of injuries led to burnout, which, in turn, led to laziness and weight gain. Since my DNF at the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race in June due to pain in my left heel, I had half-heartedly participated in the Hot to Trot 8-Hour Run in August, where I finished 17 miles in just over four hours before calling it a day, and the Yeti Snakebite 50-Mile in September, where I ran an easygoing 10 miles before heel pain and fatigue compelled me to drop out at an aid station near the parking area.
On the morning of this race, I woke up humbled and uncertain of my ability even to finish the 12-mile race option. The 12-Miler, which follows the first loop of the full marathon course up and down several challenging hills on technical trail terrain covered with boulders and tree roots, may not be as relentlessly grueling as the full course, but it is still no joke. Since I had not run over 10 miles over the past two months and was still uncertain about how the aggravated fascia tissue in my left foot would respond to the uneven trail surfaces this time around, I had no idea what to expect from my trek through the Fort Mountain woods on this day. Relieved that I had kept a couple of my old trusty extra-large black running shirts, I begrudgingly dressed in one of them and tried to keep myself away during the two-hour drive to the race start by blasting U2’s The Unforgettable Fire in my truck.
My energy and enthusiasm were quickly dusted off and reawakened after spending an hour catching up with friends at the race number pickup building, and I made my way to the back of the pack at the start line with a smile on my face. I had spent too much time alone in my metro-Atlanta apartment over the past few months, so I guess that the mountain air and the sight of familiar faces gave me the necessary spark to kick off this short adventure. As the leisurely first mile of the course circled around a beautiful campground lake, I shared some jokes with a couple of friends and fell into a relaxed pace with no pressure to finish with any particular time goal. During the 2012 Mystery Mountain Marathon, I had rushed out from the parking lot and achieved a 5:30:17 finish time while I was at the all-time peak of my running fitness. This time, my one and only goal was to return home with a 12-Miler finish instead of adding yet another DNF to my year.
I was in good company behind a line of runners as I walked up the first notable hill after the trail course left the campground area and joined the Gahuti Trail that circled the inner perimeter of the state park. As I jogged at an easy pace over the next couple of miles that wound around a series of mountainside ledges, I enjoyed the company of a local running friend, Aaron, as we exchanged gallows jokes about the hills that awaited us. When we finally did arrive at the first long climb, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I still had most of my hill-climbing mojo that had served me so well during races of the previous fall season. I passed a handful of runners on the way to the first aid station, where I downed a cup of Powerade before resuming the uphill climb to the Overlook area that provides one of the most awesome views in all of north Georgia. I was soon passed in turn by a few running friends who were on their way to impressive finishes for the full course, but the conversation kept me smiling as I trudged up the steepest hill of the 12-Miler course that led to the picturesque stone tower above the mysterious stone wall that attracts most of the park visitors.
As I ran with a couple of friends and took my time to enjoy the fall wilderness five miles into the course, I was pleased that I had felt no pain at all in my left heel so far, and I hoped that my good fortune would continue. I caught up with a couple of the marathon participants and spent a couple of minutes encouraging one girl who was nervous about race cutoffs for the full course. I spent several miles leapfrogging with one friend, Paul, whom I would pass on the hill climbs only to be passed by him on the technical descents, where he had a downhill running finesse that I lacked.
As I climbed one long ascent on the way to the eight-mile aid station, I saw Lauren, one of my pacers from last year’s Pinhoti 100 race last fall, ahead of me in the distance. We amused ourselves by quoting scenes from the movie, Blade Runner, as we crested the hill and approached the aid station at the park entrance road crossing. After thanking the volunteers and downing another cup of Powerade with a handful of Gummi Bears, I joined another friend, Joseph, with whom I had run several previous ultramarathons, and enjoyed talking with him for the next couple of miles as the trail evened out along a forest road that continued on one of the most fun downhill stretches that I have ever had the privilege of running.
|Photo courtesy of Lauren Gray Castor|
This had turned out to be a perfect morning so far. I felt no pain whatsoever in my heel. More importantly, I felt like a runner again. During my shorter runs and workouts over the past few months, I had been down on myself about my injury and my backslide into weight gain after my hard work from the year before, and I had let that “negativity snowball” become larger and larger to the point that it had sucked the joy out of an activity that I had always loved. On these Fort Mountain trails, though, I was riding a wave of happiness that put a newfound spring in my step. Long distance runs are good metaphor for life itself, because we often have to go through debilitating low points before we reach the exhilarating high points. On this particular day, I was having a good time, and I sensed the promise of better times over the horizon.
As we reached an unmanned aid station just before Mile 10, I was grateful to make my way through a rock garden section with no trouble, since that type of terrain had wrecked my heel during previous trail runs over the summer. I heard voices behind me and decided to stay ahead of them by running nonstop for most of the next mile that looped down to a creek crossing next to a small waterfall. Since I had let my endurance skills slide over the past several months, I felt the energy leaving me as I passed a couple of people on the arduous climb to the Mile 11 aid station, but I kept moving since the finish was only a mile away. When I saw some friends turn off of the Mile 11 aid station to climb the massive power line hill that signaled the beginning of the second loop for the marathoners, I felt a brief regret at my decision to scale down to the 12-Miler, but that regret was admittedly extinguished by my relief that I did not have to climb that hill this year.
I ran for most of the final mile that circled back around the campfire lake and crossed the finish line at 3:06:04 to place 84 out of 108 finishers for the 12-Miler event. This may not have been my finest hour, but it was a welcome shot in the arm of running bliss that I needed more than I had realized. Almost immediately after crossing the finish line, my relative loss of endurance fitness caught up with me as my legs cramped and excruciating pain shot up and down my calves. Several friends were hanging out at the finish area, though, and I enjoyed their company as I chilled out for a couple of hours and watched the first wave of marathoners finish their race with new course record times.
My gratitude goes to the GUTS crowd and to Race Director Kim Pike for putting another perfect Mystery Mountain Marathon and 12-Miler day together. I cannot wait to return to the full marathon distance at this course next year.
It feels good to add a race finish to my blog instead of penciling in another DNF. I still have a long way to go to return to my previous level of fitness, but I am familiar with ups and downs of the yo-yo effect and I am glad that my injury has recovered enough for me to return to a routine running schedule. I will be taking my time returning to longer distances, though, and I plan to spend the next several months devoting my full attention to the Publix Georgia Marathon in March. In recent years, I have simply shown up for marathon races between ultramarathons, so I am looking forward to training specifically for a marathon for a change. I know that one successful race finish will not solve everything, but this Mystery Mountain 12-Miler marked the return of some actual motivation to my running life by way of a fun-filled fall morning in the company of great friends.
See you on the trails.