The Mount Cheaha 50K is a gloriously rugged point-to-point ultramarathon that earns its slogan of “The Race To The Top Of Alabama” by way of technical trails, forest roads, and punishing hill climbs that traverse Talladega National Forest to end at Bald Rock Lodge on top of Cheaha Mountain, the highest summit in the state. On a sunny Friday afternoon, I arrived at Cheaha State Park eager to top my 8:32:58 finish time from the previous year. I stopped at a couple of scenic overlooks to take pictures of the mountainous terrain where the trail climbs of over 7,000 feet of elevation would greet me the following day.
Since Mount Cheaha 50K is a part of the Montrail Ultra Cup Series, I knew that I would be in the company of some of the best trail runners in the country. I stayed at Bald Rock Lodge for the second year in a row and ate a spaghetti dinner as I listened to pre-race briefings from Race Director Todd Henderson and accomplished Montrail ultrarunner, Annette Bednosky. I enjoyed hanging out with friends from my local trail group, GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society), and reconnecting with acquaintances from other states. I spent most of the dinner talking to Joseph, a friend from Tennessee, and Shawn and Krystal, two experienced ultrarunners from Baltimore. At one point, the four of us noticed a group of Marines that looked fit enough to shred the trail course in half, and, despite my year of ultra distance runs since my first experience at Cheaha State Park, I felt like a novice runner as nervousness settled in.
On February 12, I had celebrated the proudest accomplishment to date in my adult running life by completing 52.5 miles at A Stroll in Central Park 12-Hour Run and finishing in tenth place. That success came with a small price, though, and some familiar IT Band Syndrome symptoms had surfaced once again my left leg. I was several pounds lighter than I had been a year ago and I had built a stronger endurance base, but I was still praying that my legs would not turn into jelly on the steep hills of this year's event.
On the morning of the race, I was greeted by pleasant early spring weather temperatures and knew that a short-sleeved shirt and running shorts would be perfect for the day. I boarded a county prison bus that would take us runners on the 40-minute trip from Bald Rock Lodge to the starting area and enjoyed staring out the window as the sun rose across the boulder-strewn hills and pine trees. At the start area, I joked with other runners in the GUTS crowd and settled into the back of the pack, where I would enjoy an easier pace without interfering with the faster competition.
|Photo courtesy of Perry Sebastian|
The biggest mistake that I would make on this day was already becoming apparent, although I did not yet realize it. I was wearing a new barely-tested pair of Montrail Badrocks that I soon realized were laced too loosely, allowing my feet to slide around inside. For the first several miles, I was preoccupied with putting distance behind me as fast as I could and I was hesitant to stop so that I could adjust the lacing and tighten my shoes. I would soon regret this error, because I could have spared myself some agonizing pain and possibly taken a half hour off my finish time if I had only stopped for just one minute early in the race to tighten the Badrocks for a better fit. With the experience of ten ultramarathons already behind me, I had still not learned to save time by stopping in the early miles to take care of small annoyances before they turn into dangerous problems.
I arrived at the first aid station welcomed by cheers from Tommy, a friend who was sidelined from this year's Mount Cheaha race due to injury, but had volunteered to mark the trail in previous days and to help along the course during the event. I grabbed a handful of frosted molasses cookies to supplement the Crank e-Gels that I was eating every half hour, and began to climb the second hill.
I soon passed one of my running heroes, Graham, who was tackling Mount Cheaha in his signature running attire, a yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet over a white shirt. Graham and I would continue to pass each other for the next few hours. I was running with Joseph along this section and I kept commenting on what an incredibly beautiful day this was as we steadily climbed up the mountain. When I mentioned that I always had a warm and fuzzy feeling when I saw the orange sprinkler course-marking flags along the trail, because I knew that I was moving in the right direction, Joseph joked that I should keep a flag at home and at my work desk so that I could feel warm and fuzzy all the time. At the end of the first hour, I took the first of many S-Caps in anticipation of the warmer temperatures. I was already starting to guzzle water from my 70-ounce Camelbak Rogue, because months of training in sub-40-degree temperatures had left me little opportunity to acclimate for this first real taste of spring.
While I was trying to decide whether or not to pass another runner, I lost concentration, tripped over a rock, and suffered my first and worst trail fall of the race. I picked myself up, wiped dirt off of a cut on my right knee with an irritated mumble, and continued to run.
After a steady ascent on a single-track trail, I arrived at a forest service road that gave me a chance to increase my pace as I singled out other runners in the distance and caught up with them. One of my resolutions for this year's Mount Cheaha 50K was to run more of the course when I was able to run, because I had lost time at my first race when fatigue had forced me to walk several easy road sections. With this resolution in mind, I settled into an easy jog up this dirt road when the incline was less intimidating and converted to an intense power-walk when the hill steepened. When I turned a corner on the road and saw at least ten runners ahead of me in the distance, I wondered how long I could keep all of them within sight for the race.
The crest of the forest service road gave way to a luxurious 1.5-mile descent. I charged down the hill excitedly as I noticed on my Garmin watch that my overall pace so far would allow me to finish an hour faster than last year. It is easy to be overcome by enthusiasm during this fast downhill, but I knew that rocky technical trails and stream crossings lay ahead, so I wanted to run on this jeep road terrain while the running was good. As I passed Jo Lena, an experienced ultrarunner with whom I had run a handful of races, she cautioned me that I was going too fast and not saving energy for later. I knew that Jo Lena was right and that I was making the same mistake that I had made the previous year, but my confidence soared as we reached the second aid station.
My confidence dissipated during the climb from the second aid station, as the trail became noticeably more treacherous with boulders. I winced as my foot slid into sharp boulder edges in my loose Montrail Badrocks and, when Joseph asked how the shoes felt, I replied that they did not seem to have as much protection on the sides and that I needed to tighten them at the next aid station. I should have stopped at that very moment to tighten the shoes, but I soldiered on. I was tiring as I climbed a series of harshly steep switchbacks, but I enjoyed conversation with other runners as gorgeous views opened below us.
Once I reached the tenth mile of the race and emerged on the hilltop, I began running along a ridge with vast scenic outlooks to either side, but the intensely brutal terrain of rocks covered by leaves would afford me very little opportunity to enjoy the views. As Joseph fell in line behind me, I advised him to pass if he needed to, because I have never been comfortable with runners stepping close behind me on a trail. As he passed me to run in front, Joseph joked, “Looks like somebody's getting cranky!”, and I laughed along. In truth, though, I was tired and I was becoming increasingly irritable. I remembered my experience at my one and only DNF (Did Not Finish) at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile, when my fatigue and injury contributed to my being annoyed to no end at a sweeper that followed close at my heels. I was also feeling a dull ache in my knee from the IT Band discomfort and I hoped that this ache would not worsen.
Thankfully, I managed to find some levity in my situation due to some unique circumstances along the strenuously rocky ridge trail. I was in the back of a group of runners who were moving along in a single-file line, equidistant from one another. I commented to Joseph that our group was a “Peace Train”, as we all ran along and moved our arms in identical train-like motions. The pace of the “Peace Train” was slow and leisurely, but I welcomed the break from my earlier over-enthused running stretches. In fact, I soon realized that I could keep up with the line of runners by power-walking in long strides. The power-walk suited me at this point, because my feet were sliding around inside my shoes as I stepped on each angled boulder and I was increasingly intimidated by the leaf-hidden rocks that shifted under each foot. The ridge trail soon gave way to another long downhill run, but I was too tired to pass any of the runners ahead. Joseph, Jo Lena, and a few others broke from the “Peace Train” and ran ahead, but increasing foot discomfort kept me at the end of the line.
I realized that I was running out of water in my Camelbak, but I knew that the third aid station just before mile 15 was not far away. At one point, no water came out when I tried to drink from my Camelbak bite valve and I told a girl in front of me that I was really looking forward to the next aid station, because my water supply was gone. A few seconds later, I laughed out loud when I realized that I had left the anti-leak switch in lock position during my previous attempt to drink and I quickly informed the girl that I had given a false alarm and that I still had some water left in my pack. The heat of midday was approaching, though, and the well was running dry in the 70-degree temperatures.
As I reached the bottom of the long descent and started to climb again at mile 14, my upper leg muscles exploded in pain from cramps. I stopped on the hill and doubled over with my hands on my thighs as shooting pains went up and down each leg. I resumed walking with slow steps, but my spirits dropped rapidly as a handful of runners that I had passed miles before caught up with me and ran ahead.
Every ultrarunner suffers psychological low points during a race. When one is exhausted from running through miles of brutal trail terrain and has not even completed the first half of the race, the extreme elevations and descents of the trail can be mirrored by sharp elevations and sharp descents inside the head that appear with equal abruptness. As severe cramps shot up and down my legs and other runners passed me one by one, my mental state nosedived as I realized that all my attempts to balance my hydration and electrolytes to pace for a faster finish time had been in vain and everything was coming apart before my eyes. I needed to focus on something to lift my mind out of the doldrums, so I watched my feet and concentrated on taking one step after another.
Relentless forward motion brought me closer to the top of the hill and I tried to understand what was causing my cramps. I had taken one S-Cap every hour, in addition to eating a gel every half hour. I realized that I had been drinking more water with the unseasonal heat, so I took another S-Cap and bit down on the capsule to release the contents faster into my system. The cramps gradually subsided and, although they did not completely disappear, I was able to resume running as the trail yielded to a series of rolling hills. I caught a couple of runners that had just passed me and saw that my best chance to run by was to go around them over some rocks to the side of the trail.
I stepped on an angled rock as I passed the two runners, my right foot slid inside my loose shoe, and the back of the shoe tore blistered skin off of my heel. I returned to the main trail to stay ahead of the runners, but my pace was slowed to a painful walk.
After continuing for another couple of hundred feet on my blistered heel, I finally threw my hands up in exasperation and let the two runners pass me again while I took off my Camelbak and reached into the top compartment for a Band-Aid. I always keep a ziplock bag full of Band-Aids of multiple sizes in my pack and had occasionally given bandages to other runners during races, but I had never needed one for myself until this moment. I placed a large Band-Aid over the bloody spot on my lower Achilles and continued along the trail, although I could no longer run. As I started along a brief out-and-back side trail on my way to the third aid station, several people with whom I had run with earlier began to pass by in the opposite direction as they exited the station. When I saw Jo Lena and told her about my ailing heel and my leg cramps, she instructed me to stay positive.
I arrived at the third aid station and asked the volunteers if any of them had duct tape that I could use on my heel. I was happy to see a friend, Bobby, who was helping out at this aid station after running the first part of this race after recovering from surgery. Bobby and two other volunteers found some medical tape for me as I leaned against a truck bed and applied another one of my Tough-Strip Band-Aids. I then looped the tape around my ankle for additional cushioning. When I was finished, I finally tightened the laces on both of my Montrail Badrocks for a secure fit. I was told that I was only 15 minutes ahead of the aid station cutoff, so I thanked the volunteers, refilled my empty Camelbak, grabbed a handful of Doritos, and returned to the trail.
I was now one of the last runners on the trail ahead of cutoffs, I was experiencing painful leg cramps on the hottest day of the year so far, I was hurting from the torn skin on my right heel, and I had not even made it halfway through the course. A wise man once said, “When life gives you lemons, get the hell over it.” I increased my pace to a slow run and kept moving.
As the trail terrain moved away from the technical rocks into a gentle downhill covered by pine straw next to a ravine, I realized that I could run relatively pain-free with the tighter shoe fit and the Tough-Strip Band-Aid on my heel. I remembered enough from last year's race to know that the worst of the technical terrain was behind me and that I could pick up my pace accordingly. I resolved to catch up with all the runners who had passed me earlier and to beat my finish time from last year. When the trail flattened, I encountered the first runner and wished him well as I passed by. With one runner down and many more to go, the game was on.
I arrived at the first of three major stream crossings on the Mount Cheaha 50K course. Last year, I had enjoyed the refreshing feel of cold water on my legs as I walked through each stream and I knew that the water would feel incredible this time around, as temperatures were a good 20 degrees warmer than this time a year ago. Unfortunately, I feared that the water would adversely affect my crude bandaging on my blistered heel, so I decided to postpone wet feet as long as I could. I jumped quickly from one unstable stepping stone to another and managed to reach the other side with dry shoes. I jumped in triumph with my hands in the air, Rocky Balboa-style, and continued running.
A series of tiresome, but manageable climbs greeted me until the trail evened out to weave around extensive switchbacks where I could look over to each subsequent hillside and see a handful of other runners ahead of me. I gradually caught up with each of them by power-walking at a deliberate pace on the hills and running on the downhills and flats. I soon found myself alone in a rather desolate forest area of storm-battered trees lifeless under the sun and I marveled at how the land resembled the setting of a Cormac McCarthy novel. I ate S-Caps periodically when my leg cramps started to resurface, but managed to maintain my faster speed.
I reached the fourth aid station and was overjoyed to see two GUTS friends, Kirsten and Aaron, assisting the volunteers. When he saw me, Aaron yelled out, “Nutty Nuggets!”, in reference to my breakfast cereal of choice that has inspired endless good-natured teasing from the group. I was still dismayed at the time lost from my blister and leg cramps, but I tried my best to tell Kirsten and Aaron how thankful I was to see them as I refilled my Camelbak and moved on.
I enjoyed a long downhill run after the aid station and continued to pick off other runners as the elevation rose once again. After I climbed past a couple of campers next to a shelter building, I turned along the trail to another fast descent. When I noticed one runner limping as I passed, I asked how he was doing and he told me that he was really hurting from cramps. Although I only had a handful of S-Caps left in a ziplock bag in my pocket, I offered two of them to him and he gratefully accepted. As it was, I was probably eating too many of my own S-Caps. My arms were starting to bloat, although not at an alarming rate, so I resolved to be more careful with my balance of water and electrolytes. I felt reassured that I was still taking normal bathroom breaks off to the side of the trail, but it was apparent that I was also drinking more water than normal.
A few spectators awaited me at the Cheaha Creek crossing at the bottom of the hill and repeatedly snapped photos as I attempted, in my exhausted state, to negotiate the large rocks across the water. I was unsure of my abilities to leap three feet from one rock to a higher rock and my legs shook with nervousness as I paused for a second before jumping. I finally made the jump to my own bewilderment and quickly started down the out-and-back section to the fifth aid station. I was relieved to see several friends returning from the aid station in the other direction, because I knew that I had a chance to catch up with them soon if I maintained my pace. I smiled as aid station volunteers informed me that I was now 30 minutes ahead of cutoff. I was making up for lost time at long last.
I made my way back to the main trail and enjoyed spectacular views of waterfalls on a mountain stream as I walked quickly down stone steps and across wooden walkways. When I noticed a missing board in one of the walkways, I thought about a scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. My increasingly cheerful mood received another boost when I passed two runners and realized that they were the Marines that my friends and I had noticed during the pre-race dinner the night before. I wished the Marines well and continued along a seemingly never-ending, but pleasant pine-straw covered trail until I successfully crossed the final stream without getting my feet wet. The water level in the streams was noticeably lower than last year and that was just fine with me and my heel bandages.
Just before I entered a section of flat trail through countless sapling pine trees, I ran up a short hill and tripped when the hook of a tree root caught the toe of my shoe. I landed face down on the ground as more leg cramps exploded up and down my thighs. I yelled out a few words that did not count against me, since nobody else was around to hear me yell them, then picked myself up to continue running.
I emerged from the woods onto a straight dirt road that I would follow for over a mile and started to run faster when I saw several others ahead of me in the distance. I was overjoyed that I could run most of this road, because I remembered last year's race, when I had been too exhausted to run at all by this time. I had lived up to my resolution to run more of the Mount Cheaha course. When I caught up with Joseph, we resumed joking for a short while as we both slowed to a quick power-walk up a steep hill before turning onto paved roads.
Now that I was running with properly tightened Montrail Badrocks, I decided that these shoes were pretty good after all. After 27 miles of running, the soles of my feet felt comfortable and I realized that the stability aspects of the Badrocks worked well for my running style. My minor IT Band aches from earlier in the race had even disappeared altogether.
I continued to run alone for the downhill segments of this paved road that would take me up to Mount Cheaha and my newfound enthusiasm put a spring in my step even as I power-walked the hills. Volunteers from a previous aid station passed in a vehicle and offered water or supplies to each of us on the road. When one of them held out a can of cold Diet Mountain Dew at me, I gratefully accepted. Moments later, when I passed two friends, Andon and Len, Andon exclaimed, “You're running with a can of Mountain Dew? That's totally gangsta!” I laughed as Andon and Len both yelled, “Just Dew It!”
I was reaching the seven-hour mark on my Garmin watch as I ran down the curvy paved hill, desperate to reach Cheaha Lake, the final aid station before the brutal climb up Cheaha Mountain. In my state of tired euphoria, I reflected back on my brief hopelessness earlier in the race when the leg cramps had reduced me to a painful walk. Several years ago, when a co-worker had completed his first marathon and was trying to describe his incredible experience to me, he said that, during those 26.2 miles, a person experiences every single human emotion. I realized once again that I was addicted to these marathon and ultramarathon races, because I thrived on that moment when a daunting low moment of a race turned into a state of elation when I realized that I could pull through and finish. These races have been a blessing to me as I have struggled to define what I want out of life in my late 30's and I cannot help wondering if the increasing sell-out times for marathons and ultras in these harsh economic times are because of people who, like me, reached out to running as a way to establish goals outside their careers. If I ever become injured to the point that I am unable to run, I plan to spend the rest of my life volunteering at ultramarathon races so that I can help others enjoy the uplifting experiences.
At this moment, though, there still was one major obstacle between me and yet another grand positive experience. I had reached the final aid station and I now had to climb up Blue Hell, the torturous ascent of 900 feet in less than a half mile. Blue Hell, named for the blue trail blazes that mark the path straight up the side of Mount Cheaha, loomed ahead of me in the sight of the mountain with massive boulder outcroppings on top. I silently congratulated myself for arriving at this aid station 45 minutes ahead of schedule, but knew that the next half mile could crumple my confidence like a child crumples up a paper airplane.
I quickly walked the short distance from the Cheaha Lake picnic area to the foot of the mountain and commended the initial stage of the climb, a tree-root laden trail that seemed to rise into the stratosphere. When I felt a leg cramp coming on, I grabbed two more S-Caps, bit down on them to release the contents, and spat out the half empty capsules when I decided against taking in that much sodium this late in the race. I advanced without stopping, although I was often leaning over with my hands on my knees during the walk. The trail of tree roots eventually became an impossibly steep boulder field, where the trail would have been indiscernible if not for the blue blazes. I never stopped to rest during this climb, but I was almost reduced to tears as I started whining to myself while I grabbed trees and rocks to pull my way up to the top. I passed three other runners along this boulder section, all of whom were probably alarmed by the heavyset guy who was pleading, “God help me, God help me, God help me...”, as he struggled past them.
I finally emerged from the boulders to be welcomed by the cruelest false summit on Earth, as the orange flag course markings that no longer made me feel warm and fuzzy continued up a long paved hill and up a steep rocky trail to a stone tower. I reached the top of the incline and somehow found the energy to run again when I realized that I was nearly at the eight-hour mark. I ran past three other runners and congratulated them as I continued along the final half mile of trail and finally emerged onto the road up to Bald Rock Lodge.
When I saw the finish line clock come into view with a time readout of 8:09:40, I kicked into a near-sprint up the hill and high-fived three of my fellow GUTS runners, Sean, Wayne, and Christian, as they cheered me past through the finish banner. I completed the 2011 Mount Cheaha 50K race in 8:10:02, nearly 23 minutes faster than my time from last year, and placed 144 out of 181 runners.
|Photo courtesy of Perry Sebastian|
The 2011 Mount Cheaha 50K was a day with the highest temperatures of the year so far, the lowest emotional ebb of any of my ultra races so far, and the most uplifting second wind of my running career, all while I was still recovering from 52.5 miles at a 12-hour race two weeks before. In retrospect, I am surprised that I almost achieved a negative split on a 50K course with Blue Hell at mile 28. There is something to be said for an event in which I feel as though I lived through several months in one day.
Thanks to Race Director Todd Henderson, Jamie Henderson, and the volunteers for working so hard to make this race a rugged, but safe and enjoyable experience. I am looking forward to returning to these mountains.
See you on the trails.