On May 21, 2011, I completed the Scenic City Trail Marathon with a finish time of 5:50:23.
|Photo courtesy of Sam Silvey Photography
The Scenic City Trail Marathon, part of the Rock/Creek Trail Series, takes place at the Raccoon Mountain Reservoir in Chattanooga, Tennessee and features single-track trails that are advertised on the race website as fast and forgiving. The trail system of rolling hills circles the mountaintop reservoir twice for the full marathon distance and rewards runners with views of the Chattanooga cityscape and the Tennessee River below, an impressive electrical switchyard, and, finally, a massive rockfill dam that spans the western edge of the lake. With just under 3,000 feet of total elevation gain, the Scenic City Trail Marathon is not easy, but the intensity of the climbs is lessened by multiple switchbacks and every section of the course is runnable.
Every runner is an experiment of one, however, and even the trail marathons that are described as fast and forgiving can wreak havoc on the body under less than ideal peripheral conditions. I would be attempting the Scenic City Trail Marathon just one week after my pleasing finish at the Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon on May 14 and I knew from past experience that residual fatigue can take its toll even when a runner feels fully recovered and energetic in the early miles of a race. Assurances from veteran trail runners that the Scenic City was an easier course than that of Twisted Ankle did little to assuage my nervousness about attempting two trail marathons in two weeks. The weather predictions for Scenic City Trail Marathon also warranted caution, since the race would take place in 88-degree temperatures on the first truly hot day after nearly two weeks of 65 to 70-degree weather that left runners poorly acclimated to the sudden heat. Since I am a heavyweight runner, I was aware that the summer heat and humidity could stop me in my tracks during the final hours of a trail marathon if I did not plan adequately for my hydration and electrolyte needs. As I enjoyed a pre-race dinner with friends in Chattanooga the day before Scenic City, I was looking forward to a fun day in the sun on beautiful trails, but I also remembered my slight brushes with heat exhaustion and borderline hyponatremia from my mistakes in past races.
I woke up in my normal compulsively early fashion hours before the race, drove to the starting area via a slightly eerie single-lane road along the top of the Raccoon Mountain dam, and enjoyed immersing myself in the vibe of pre-event excitement as I watched other runners arrive amidst the setup of race exhibits. Rock/Creek always does an exemplary job with their trail series events and the mere sight of Rock/Creek vehicles, large inflatable finish line markers, outdoor company sponsor booths, and massage tents eased me into enthusiastic trail running mode. When my friends from GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) arrived and we relaxed in camp chairs by the road, time passed quickly as I encountered old and new acquaintances. These events are not unlike family reunions for those of us who participate in multiple races and I was once again thankful for the familiar friendly faces that would keep me going through the trial of miles yet to come.The sun rose quickly over the mountain, though, and I was already starting to break a sweat as I lined up in the back of the pack at the start line during loudspeaker announcements. I realized that the second lap of this double-loop course in noonday temperatures was going to be a beatdown and that, even as a veteran ultra-distance runner, I was about to take the first steps on a marathon course with the uncertainty of completion.
|Photo courtesy of Wilderness Adventure Photography
The first mile of the course consisted of a gradual uphill on a paved road to thin out the runners before the sold-out capacity race turned into the woods along a narrow single-track trail. I spotted a group of friends from Marathon Maniacs and tried to keep an easy pace with them as we watched faster runners surge ahead on the pavement. Even an intentionally relaxed runner can get ahead of himself, though, and I decided to take a couple of Galloway method walk breaks when I noticed that I was passing others on this initial stretch. When I saw the slight bottleneck of runners as the course turned off the road, I slowed to a longer walk and took my time to get to the trailhead with the same end result. The early mood was humorous and lighthearted, since we were all thankful to retreat into the tree shade from the open road.
The rolling hills of the Scenic City trail course began rolling out right away and I immediately fell into ultrarunning mode by power-walking the longer climbs while I talked with a handful of new friends who had recognized me from my race reports. Since we were all running this event for the first time, the main subject of conversation hovered around the question of whether or not the trail terrain would remain as pleasant and unassuming as it was for these early miles. The trail twisted along easy switchbacks over boulders and tree roots that claimed an occasional runner, but the course was not overly technical at this point and I thought to myself that I could run along sexy single-track trail sections like this all day. When we briefly emerged out of the trees to cross an open powerline section that overlooked the city of Chattanooga to the east, I departed slightly from my cautionary trail running style to look away and enjoy the view a couple of times. When I arrived at the first aid station at the East Overlook area, took a cup of HEED electrolyte drink, and moved on, I found myself ahead of most of the runners in the small group with whom I had kept company.
Mile markers were placed along the trail on this initial stretch and the prominent psychological predicament of this race revealed itself almost immediately. My fellow runners and I were all registering noticeably shorter distances on our Garmin wristwatches than the mile markers were indicating. I was surprised to see my Garmin registering four miles when I ran by the Mile 5 marker. I decided that the multiple switchbacks were causing the Garmin to register shorter distances with its point-to-point satellite measurements, so I decided to ignore the device as best I could. Ignoring the Garmin on my wrist was not a difficult task as I continued to enjoy the scenery on the fun downhills of the course. When the trail markers directed me onto a leisurely descending gravel road on the way to a large electrical switchyard that resembled a science fiction movie setting, I fell into my ideal trail running pace dictated by the mantra, “If it feels like working, then you are working too hard.”
The trail running did not feel like work at all on these gradual downhills and, even when I turned off the gravel road back into the woods for the trail switchbacks, the distance moved past effortlessly and I was surprised at how good I felt on the trails even on this warm morning. I smiled and thought to myself that I was born to do this.
I then tripped over a rock and fell hard on the trail. As I made a quick roll, stood up, and resumed running, another person behind me asked if I was okay. I laughed and reassured him that I was fine. I certainly needed to be more careful doing what I was born to do, though.
The terrain increased in difficulty as I made my way around the reservoir near the Raccoon Mountain Visitor Center. Fortunately, the frequency of scenic views also increased. While another runner and I made our way down a stretch that overlooked the beautiful Tennessee River, we agreed that we wanted to take longer looks down at the river, but the rocky trail would not allow for casual sightseeing.
The toughest elevation of this trail marathon soon appeared in the form of multiple switchbacks where I could see several runners high above me. Since I had recently realized that I was doing more nonstop running than usual this early in a long trail race, I was thankful for the opportunity to hike up these switchbacks and recharge. My long-established trail race plan of eating a gel every half hour and an S-Cap once an hour was serving me well and I took advantage of the hill to down another gel. When I reached the Mile 8.3 aid station shortly after, I refilled my Camelbak Rogue 70-ounce hydration pack for the first time, took another HEED drink, and started a mostly-downhill series of trails made more challenging by the increasingly technical terrain of rocks. The trails were winding closer and closer to the large rockfill dam while, off to my right, I could still see occasional views of the Tennessee River valley.
|Photo courtesy of Kim Purcell Pike
I soon reached one of the most fun sections of the course as the trail left the trees into an open meadow area at the foot of the rockfill dam. I thought about the rumored end-of-the-world scenarios of May 21, 2011 and briefly hoped that these scenarios did not include disastrous floods from bursting dams. I continued to leapfrog the same runners over and over as many of them raced ahead of me on the technical descents where my running style is more timid and alternately power-walked ahead of them on the switchback climbs with my deliberate uphill strategy. I departed momentarily from my hill strategy by breaking into an easy run while a photographer snapped a picture of me from the end of a rock trail at the foot of the dam, then resumed power-walking when the trail climb turned into the woods.
Mental blocks can appear in puzzling ways and I experienced my psychological low point of the race after passing the third aid station. By comparing trail markers and Garmin data, I had ascertained that my actual mileage was roughly two miles over the mileage displayed on my Garmin. When my Garmin read 10 miles at this third aid station and I was informed by the volunteers that I was 11 miles into the race instead of the assumed 12 miles, the reality that I still had 14 miles left to run in quickly rising temperatures dampened my easygoing pace. Although I had finished the first loop and was now returning to the easy trail terrain that I had traversed early in the race, this trail race now appeared tiresomely difficult.
I rubbed dirt on my concerns and maintained my running pace on the downhills and flats of the trail. I was invigorated by my realization that I was going to complete the first 14 miles of this race in less than three hours, and visions of a comfortable sub-6-hour race time danced in my head. Still, the midday heat was really starting to bear down on me. I remembered my overhydrated state from the 2010 Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon and decided to limit my drinking from the Camelbak to reasonably compensate for the temperature, instead of drinking too much and putting my sodium levels down below the danger zone. With the temperatures climbing, I stayed true to taking one S-Cap an hour with adequate hydration of no more than 30 ounces per hour.
I ran on the trails alone until I reached the East Overlook aid station. I asked one of the volunteers to put three cups of ice into my Camelbak before refilling it with water and then hit the trails again with a handful of Gummi Bears for quick sugar. As I ran, I could hear the ice water rattling around inside the Camelbak to cool the water. Each time I took a sip from the hydration pack, I would blow the warm water inside the plastic tube back into the main bladder so that my first sip would be of the ice-cold water. The small luxury of cold water from the Camelbak kept me moving for the next few miles, even as fatigue dimmed my bright disposition. My black shirt, while not immediately apparent as a wise choice of summer running gear, felt pretty good with its loose fit and vented mesh.
I smiled to myself again as I enjoyed running the gravel road descent on the way to the switchyard and remembered my comical fall on the trail at that point on the first loop. The smiling did not come as easy the second time around, though. I passed one couple of fellow runners and asked them how they were doing as I noticed one of them stop to catch breath. When they replied that they were okay and then asked me how I was, I replied, “I’ll be okay when I reach the finish line.” I was immediately ashamed of my wearied response and followed it up by reassuring the couple, “I’m feeling pretty good right now, though!”
My pace was slowing and my walk breaks were increasing, so I reached into my bag of mental tricks to pull me along the trail. Fortunately, the view to my right soon opened up to reveal the Tennessee River once again and I remembered how fortunate I was to have the ability to run not just one, but two trail marathons in the month of May. I thought back to early 2009, when I was training with my local Galloway group to run my first marathon, and remembered how none of the runners in my group believed me when I told them that I planned only to run one full marathon and then go back to running the more manageable distances of 10K races. The Scenic City Trail Marathon would be my 24th race of a marathon-or-greater distance since March of 2009 and the realization that the impossible had now become routine gave my motivation the necessary shot in the arm to keep running when I could. I was extremely lucky to be spending a beautiful Saturday on the trails with friends and my irritations about the heat and rocks suddenly seemed insignificant.
Spirit does not always translate to speed and I knew that I was in for a longer time on my second loop, but putting one foot in front of the other still felt good. I arrived at the Mile 20.1 aid station to once again fill my Camelbak with ice water, but I rejected the Gummi Bears in favor of a handful of large orange slices this time around and turned down the HEED in favor of a cup of icy Mountain Dew. I continued along on the rolling trail hills with my increasing walk intervals. When I drew closer to one runner who asked me the time, we were both overjoyed when we realized that we had a chance of a decent sub-6-hour finish time. The idea of beating my finish time from the previous week’s Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon, despite the 20-degree rise in temperatures, shifted into my main goal.
I was starting to pass runners with my steady pace, especially on the hill climbs. One woman had passed by me before the Mile 20.1 aid station, but, other than that, nobody else passed me during the second loop of this marathon and I was managing to pass more people that I expected. Each encounter with another runner gave me increased motivation as I would exchange pleasantries and then move along. I ran down the trails by the rocky vistas of the dam, power-walked the hills, and finally made my way to the last aid station. A volunteer informed me that I only had 2.4 miles left to go to the finish.
I was quickly winding down and the final 2.4 miles seemed like quite the task. My legs were almost drained of their running ability, so I walked through most of the switchbacks. There was certainly not a shortage of switchbacks at this point in the race and I grimaced each time a trail turn took me farther away from the general direction of the finish. I could soon hear cheering voices from the finish area and the fact that I still had to zigzag back and forth over and over for another couple of miles just made me laugh at the insanity of it all. The trail turned close to the clearing where I could see the huge inflatable finish line marker through the trees and hear voices from the cars where my GUTS friends were waiting. I yelled, “GUTS!”, in that direction, but was not sure if anyone heard me. The trail then took me farther away into the woods once again.
I drew closer and closer to one runner with a white shirt, but was unable to completely close the distance. We were both reduced to a fast awkward walk that made me think of Butch (Bruce Willis) and Marsellus (Ving Rhames) limping after each other with guns after the vehicle collision in the movie, Pulp Fiction. We both passed two other runners and I complimented each of them on finishing a great race on a hot day. I was pleased that I had managed my hydration and electrolytes in the high temperatures so that I could finish the race with no unhealthy consequences. This race would go down in my history as a good training run for longer distances in warm weather.
After the eternity of trail switchbacks, I followed the runner in the white shirt out into the open for the final paved loop to the finish. I caught up with this runner and high-fived him as I passed. I was grateful to see my GUTS friends cheering from their tailgate camp chairs by the road as they snapped photos. Kim, Amanda, and Aaron had all finished their half marathons and Leah had finished her full marathon, while John and Janice had both won age group awards for their marathons. I waved, but increased my running speed as I noticed the white shirt runner catching up with me again. I kept the distance and ran through the finish line. I had finished the Scenic City Trail Marathon in 5:50:23 and placed 141 out of 175 runners.
I accepted a cold electrolyte drink at the finish and comically searched for a trash can before someone took the cup from me to throw away. A Chattanooga friend, Wendy, grabbed a pair of Smartwool socks for me as I congratulated two runners from my Atlanta Galloway group, Katie and Marlene, on completing their first trail marathon. The runner in the white shirt that I had trailed in the final miles introduced himself as Dave and we congratulated each other once again. I was happy to see Sarah, who had set a new female course record at this race, as she waited at the finish area with kind words for everyone. A hamburger and Powerade both provided some good post-race calories as I returned to the cars where my GUTS friends waited. I asked if any of them had heard me yell, “GUTS!”, from the trails and laughed when John told me that he had heard it, but thought that it was somebody yelling a curse word.
Two trail marathons in two weeks are now in the books for May 2011. I enjoyed spending time with the GUTS crowd at Big River Grill after the race and then returned home to join friends for a 6-mile recovery run the following morning. Sometimes, I feel as if I were born to go for long distances, but I am thankful that I can now rest for a couple of weeks to hit the trails again in June, including a return to Raccoon Mountain for the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race.
Thanks to the Rock/Creek race organizers and volunteers for another fun event that captures the love of the outdoors in one of my favorite cities. Thanks to my GUTS friends for the company and congratulations to all of the runners who braved summer temperatures to enjoy some amazing trail views.
See you on the trails.