On October 12, 2014, I completed my fifth Mystery Mountain Marathon with a finish time of 7:41:29.
|Photo courtesy of Joy Sandoz|
Mystery Mountain Marathon, which is organized by the Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS), takes place every October at Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth, Georgia. The race, which is named after 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 a challenging mix of steep climbs and technical trails lined with rocks and tree roots. Despite the rough terrain, Mystery Mountain Marathon is my favorite Georgia race, because of the beautiful scenery at the start of leaf season, the presence of several local running friends, and the many volunteers who go above and beyond the call of duty to make this a safe and fun experience.
After completing this marathon four years in a row from 2009 to 2012, I had scaled back to the 12-mile race option in 2013 due to injury. Although I am still on the long road to getting back into peak shape, I was determined to return to the full marathon distance once again this year, albeit with the modest goal of simply finishing within the eight-hour cutoff. After completing a 50K distance at the Merrill’s Mile 12-Hour Run in July and completing 29.5 miles at the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run in early August, I had struggled with heat and low energy at subsequent long distance runs, including a slow finish time at the Hotlanta Half Marathon in late August and a DNF (Did Not Finish) over Labor Day weekend at the Yeti Snakebite 50 Mile, where I dropped from the course after only 22 miles. I’ve found, however, that the most effective way to get back into the shape for long distances is to attempt long distance races, even when I am undertrained. In addition to being a fun way to spend time in the woods during my favorite month of the year, the full Mystery Mountain Marathon would be a great opportunity to get some training time on my feet.
This year’s event would feature a new difficulty in the form
of slippery rocks and mud, because heavy rains had drenched the park throughout
the previous night until just a couple of hours before the start of the
race. As I made the rainy two-hour drive
from my apartment to Fort Mountain State Park in the pre-dawn hours, I wondered
how the wet weather would impact my race, since running on the trail boulders
and the many leaf-covered wooden bridges could now be like running on black
ice. Since I usually start in the back
of the pack, I would also be making my way along trails that were muddied from
the shoes of a couple of hundred other runners.
Excitement overcame nervousness, however, when I arrived at the park and
enjoyed hanging out with friends at the race number pickup.
|Photo courtesy of Daina Denning|
As I lined up with other runners at the start, Race Director Kim Pike advised everyone that the wooden bridges would be extremely slick because of the overnight rains. She also warned us that black bears were present and active on the park grounds, and that we should exercise caution, especially if we encountered mother bears with cubs. Despite my offbeat wish to see one of the bears from a respectable distance, I did not personally encounter a single one during this race, but several other runners and volunteers reported bear sightings later in the day.
The sound of cannon fire sent us on our way, and I enjoyed a relaxed running pace along the first mile around the campground lake, the only flat terrain of the entire course. I realized early on that the warnings about the slippery surfaces of the wooden bridges were valid, because I saw one runner ahead of me slip on one of them.
|Photo courtesy of Lisa Montreuil|
The next three miles were pleasantly uneventful as I talked with several other runners in the back of the pack along some rocky ledge trails and water crossings that demanded vigilance because of the weather. Although I watched a couple of others slip and fall on the trail, and heard even more people falling on the trail behind me, I fortunately remained on my feet the entire time. In lieu of the usual running gels, I had decided to fill three small plastic bags with my favorite race fuel, Gummi Bears, and I started putting a handful in my mouth at every half hour on my watch. After the first notable climb of the course, I arrived at the Stone Tower aid station at the 3.5-mile mark, and fueled with Powerade, orange slices, and half of a banana before climbing up to the overlook at the highest point of the race.
As I led a few other runners along the trail that circled Fort Mountain, a hiker warned us that there were yellow jackets just ahead. A couple of minutes later, I spotted several of these yellow jackets buzzing around some slippery stone steps. Knowing that the best strategy was simply to run through as fast as possible, I quickly negotiated the slick rocks and somehow managed not to get stung or to fall on my face. I counted my lucky stars as I heard cries of pain from runners behind me, and then caught up with a few other runners who were comparing the stings on their legs. As I passed a few people on the climb to the tower, I did not have a lot of trouble coming to terms with the fact that I was unpopular with the yellow jackets.
|Photo courtesy of Lisa Montreuil|
The next four miles to the second aid station consisted of a series of short, but steep climbs and similarly steep descents. As I felt my heart rate go up sharply on the hills, I looked back with a wistful nostalgia at my 2012 self who had weighed 50 pounds lighter while quickly negotiating these climbs on his way to a 5:30:17 finish time. We have to make do with what we’ve got at any given time, though, and I was pleased to discover that I still had the ability to pass other runners on the uphill sections with my power-walking pace.
After I fueled with more Powerade, oranges, and bananas at the Park Entrance aid station, I continued along the hilly trail and enjoyed the company of a couple of fellow ultrarunners, Mary and Paul. I always go through an energy lull at this point of Mystery Mountain Marathon around mile 9 and 10, because I’m tired out from the earlier hills, and because I know that the most challenging sections are still to come, but relentless forward motion and good company got me through. I suffered my one and only fall of the day on a muddy descent as Paul and I ran down to an unmanned water station, and I subsequently apologized for the multiple F-words that I had provided as the soundtrack as I slipped on the mud and fell on my back. With nothing injured except for my dignity, I soldiered on and moved steadily to the 11-mile aid station at the base of the Power Line Trail, the steepest of many massive climbs that would greet me on the second loop of the course.
|Photo courtesy of Lisa Montreuil|
The top of the Power Line Trail was concealed in fog, and, despite my slow and deliberate pace, I enjoyed the cinematic look of my surroundings and even managed to close the distance between myself and some faster runners who had started the climb a minute or so before me. After making my way to the top, I walked along a short stretch before starting the scariest part of the course, a steep rock-covered descent that drops roughly 1,200 feet in one mile to the bottom of the mountain. I ran down this hill at a decent pace, although I was mindful of the slippery terrain and made sure to stay off to the side of the muddy main track. Technical downhill running is not one of my strengths, but I somehow passed runners during this descent for the first time in any of my Mystery Mountain Marathon races. I was sapped of energy when I reached the bottom of the mountain, though, so these runners soon passed me on the forest roads that led to the next aid station.
For this year’s race, the aid station was located farther up the forest road route than normal so that the usual six-mile stretch of road with no aid would be split up to better accommodate the runners. When I finally reached this aid station, which was run by two friends, Deano and Perry, I told them that I was mostly walking, since I was out of energy. When they assured me that I had completed 15.5 miles of the course already, though, my confidence rose. I downed some more Powerade, oranges, and bananas, thanked my friends, and commenced a series of seemingly never-ending hill climbs on the rock-strewn road. This forest road section marathon is maddeningly frustrating in many ways, because I keep anticipating the inevitable downhill stretch only to turn a corner and see more climbs ahead. My power-walking pace served me well, though, and I soon passed a runner on one particularly steep stretch. For the remainder of the entire race, I passed others instead of being passed myself.
|Photo courtesy of Joy Sandoz|
When I finally arrived at the long-awaited descent, I ran occasionally during the steeper downhill sections before finding myself on a road covered with wet grass that was slick underfoot. I decided that the benefit of attempting to run this stretch would be negligible at best in terms of my finish time, so I resumed walking as not to slip and fall on my face. When I got to the Far Out aid station that was located at the bottom of the mountain 19 miles into the course, I was happy to see two friends, Tom and Ronnie. At this aid station, I also caught up with a couple whom I had been leapfrogging since the beginning of the race, and, after some mutual encouragement, I continued ahead by power-walking at a fast clip on the rolling hills and slippery grass of a forest road that led to the most famous climb of this race, a non-stop two-mile hike back to the top of the mountain.
This relentless two-mile climb, which proceeds alongside rhododendrons and a beautiful rocky creek with occasional waterfalls, is the most daunting section of Mystery Mountain Marathon for most runners, but I have always enjoyed how this hill allows me to utilize my steady power-walking hill strategy, which is my greatest strength for trail races. I plowed forward up some grueling hand-on-knee ascents, and managed to pass three runners on my way to the top.
I was exhausted, but happy, when I finally arrived at the Last Gasp aid station alongside a paved road at mile 22.3. Six and a half hours had passed, and, for the most part, I was too tired to run, but I was still confident of my ability to reach the finish before the deadline. For the next few miles, I only ran for brief stretches, because my legs were now reminding me that I was rusty on the long distances trail routes, but I still managed to pass a couple more runners. After a near-eternity of climbing up and down hills along the perimeter ridgeline of the park, I finally made it to the top of the Power Line Trail, where I would have to run down the same steep route that I had climbed hours earlier. I miraculously avoided slipping on wet grass and mud as I ran down the hill, grateful to see more friends volunteering at the final aid station. I alternately ran and walked the flat trail on the last mile around the campground lake, but picked up my pace when I turned the last corner and found myself within sight of the finish line. I was apparently brain-dead at this point, because one of the volunteers had to direct me to the correct side of the flags along the finish chute. I crossed the finish line in 7:41:29 and placed 83 out of 93 finishers for the slowest trail marathon time of my running career, but I was nonetheless overjoyed to have conquered this tough course on a wet and rainy weekend.
I collected my medal and race glass, and then hung out at the finish line for a short while to congratulate friends and to relax before my drive home. I was grateful to see a large box of fruit at the finish table, because I have returned to my lifestyle of avoiding processed foods whenever I’m not actually running. I found out that the wet conditions of the trail had got the best of a few people, but that many of my running friends had also finished with amazing times.
Thanks to Kim Pike and to the GUTS crowd for another perfect Mystery Mountain Marathon, despite the decidedly imperfect weather. This was a particularly beautiful race, because of the leaf change scenery and because of the fog that lent a mystical atmosphere to the setting, but, as always, the people are what make this even so special.
See you on the trails.