Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mystery Mountain Marathon 10/9/11 (Race Report)

On October 9, 2011, I completed my third Mystery Mountain Marathon with a finish time of 6:42:45 and improved on my previous year’s finish by almost 40 minutes.

Photo courtesy of Russ Johnson
Mystery Mountain Marathon takes place every October at Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth, Georgia, and draws its name from an ancient 855-foot rock wall at the top of the mountain.   The rock wall is thought to have been built by Native Americans for ceremonial purposes, but other theories of its origin are outlined on the plaques around the state park.  Most of us who participate in this race, however, know that the real mystery is whether or not we will finish in one piece.  Mystery Mountain Marathon is a truly rugged course that combines rocky technical terrain with over 8,500 feet of elevation gain.  Grueling uphill stretches that sometimes go on for miles are matched in intensity by sharp descents that can wreak havoc on a runner’s quads, if the runner is fortunate enough to avoid stumbling on the loose rocks and scree.  

A race with the above description may not seem fun, but Mystery Mountain Marathon is my favorite race, and it is always a highlight of my year.  For those of us who believe that life begins at the end of our comfort zone, the harshness of the trail terrain is all the more satisfying, and the sight of first-time runners crossing the finish with smiles on their faces makes the challenge worthwhile to all involved.  GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) does a superb job sponsoring this race each year with the utmost attention given to safety and celebration.  Aid station volunteers dressed in Halloween costumes always seem to greet the runners at just the right times, and the unique race awards (pint glasses, ingeniously-designed race shirts, and, in this year’s case, hand-crafted finishers medals) make runners eager to revisit the course each year.  The race date invites a variety of weather conditions, and my own experiences have ranged from the amazing 68-degree temperature highs of 2009, to the unseasonably hot 82-degree sun in 2010, to, finally, the comfortable 76-degree overcast weather this year.  I achieved my course record in 2009 by finishing in 6:18:01, but my decision to run this race the week after StumpJump 50K in subsequent years has resulted in slower finish times.  The rewards of an epic October on the trails, however, are too great for me to miss, and I always look forward to seeing how my body handles the beatdown of Mystery Mountain Marathon the week after another long distance race. 

The challenges of the Fort Mountain trails seemed especially daunting on the morning of the race this year, because I had beaten my previous year’s finish at StumpJump 50K by over an hour the weekend before, then followed that race with several miles of additional training over the next few days for a 60-mile week as I trained for an upcoming 100-mile race.  To say that I did not properly taper for Mystery Mountain Marathon would be an understatement.  I still felt excited as I woke up early on the morning of the race and drove two hours north from Atlanta to arrive at Fort Mountain State Park in the predawn darkness, but I made a promise to myself to use this year’s event as a simple training run with no particular time goal in mind.  

Photo courtesy of Russ Johnson
Local trail races are like family reunions, and I enjoyed talking to fellow GUTS runners and meeting new friends at the race start.  A friend, Michael, kindly lent me an extra stopwatch when I discovered that my Garmin watch was not functioning.  The race distance readings on a Garmin are negligible at best for this race, due to the elevation changes at Fort Mountain, but I needed a timer to ensure that I ate a gel every 30 minutes, and Michael’s stopwatch allowed me to stick to my nutrition plan.  I lined up at the back of the pack as Race Director Kim Pike addressed the crowd of runners, and ran across the parking lot at a leisurely pace as the race started with a bang.

The first mile of Mystery Mountain Marathon has a “calm before the storm” effect as runners circle a lake on a flat trail before crossing over a road to the Gahuti Trail, a stretch of multiple hill climbs and descents over tree roots and boulders that forms the first loop of the course.  During the initial miles of the race, my pace was admittedly sluggish, as I walked up the short hills and took my time accelerating into a run when the trail evened out.  I joked with a friend, Samantha, and promised I would actually run at some point.  In truth, I was feeling tired from the very beginning and knew that my high training mileage in the days leading to this race had left me poorly equipped to go the full distance of this race.  I alternated Honey Stinger Gold gels with chocolate Accel gels every half hour, but the nutrition schedule provided no early boost.  My left knee was also aching and, by the time I reached the first aid station at the foot of an overlook trail, I was already considering cutting the race short after the first loop and finishing with the Mystery Mountain 12-Mile participants.  

As I followed Samantha and a handful of other runners to the beautiful overlook of Fort Mountain and turned the corner on a scenic trail of multiple rock steps, my legs felt like lead weights and I flinched every time my foot came down off one of the steps to the ground below.  I was amazed at how I could feel so buoyant and energetic at StumpJump 50K the week before, only to be constantly fatigued on this particular morning.  Misery loves company, though, and I enjoyed listening to the colorful commentary that some of the other runners had for this same terrain.  We turned off the scenic trail bluff, made a steep uphill climb to the very top of Fort Mountain, and ran out into a clearing to the rock tower at the highest elevation point.  I gave a high-five to a friend, Joel, who was cheering runners from beside the tower, and then started a treacherous descent down a set of stone stairs next to the mysterious rock wall.  I ran down the stairs at a decent clip, but still imagined my legs crumbling with each extended step down to the next rock.  After I reached the bottom of the steps and waved to volunteers, the trail became pleasingly runnable for the next mile, and I took advantage of the opportunity to speed along without the threat of giant boulders to break my fall.  

Photo courtesy of Russ Johnson
The backside portion of the first loop is marked by multiple short climbs and steep downhills that eventually cycle down into a marshy area with occasional wooden bridges.  I heard music on the trail ahead and smiled when I turned a corner to see a group of teenagers, one of whom was the Race Director’s son, playing their instruments, drums, guitar, and all, next to the trail as runners clapped and sped by.  More hills greeted me as I continued behind a small group of runners and climbed out of the marshy areas up to some picturesque fall landscapes near the park entrance road.  Even when I am suffering from fatigue, beautiful scenery from a trail never fails to remind me how fortunate I am to be outside and participating in a race.  With yellow leaves overhead, I emerged onto the park road and grabbed a cup of Coke at the second aid station.  The temperatures were still low enough early in the day that I had conserved my water and did not need to stop and refill my Camelbak at the first two stations.  I moved on quickly, leaving a couple of runners at the aid station behind me, and slowly started the section that would conclude the initial loop.

Photo courtesy of Daina Denning
I ran next to a friend, Len, and commented to him that I was debating ending my race along with the 12-milers.  My left knee was feeling better, now that I was warmed up from miles of running and climbing, but my energy was still low.  I did not feel that there would be any disgrace with a decision to cut the race short, since my personal course record at StumpJump 50K had taken a lot out of me.  On the other hand, though, I needed the full distance as a part of my training for Pinhoti 100, so that I could scale down in mid-October and start tapering before the 100 in November.  As I followed Samantha and the other runners to the Mile 11 aid station, I decided that I needed to complete the full marathon.  Even if I ran out of energy and had a completely sucktastic finish time, I would still have the solid hill training under my belt that I really needed.  

The Mile 11 aid station volunteers cheered me up as I refilled my Camelbak for the first time and grabbed a handful of strawberry hard candies for the power line hill climb.  The power line hill, a massive stretch of trail that seemed to climb vertically into the heavens, loomed directly ahead of me, and the runners in the distance who were close to the top looked like specks of dust.  The only way to ascend the power line hill is to concentrate on one foot in front of the other.  I managed to pass a few runners as I climbed, and as I soldiered up the steepest final half, the sight of others falling farther behind invigorated me to climb faster.  A volunteer who sat at the top with a book directed me to the right, and I broke out into a slow run for couple of hundred yards before reaching the most difficult portion of Mystery Mountain Marathon, the Mile 12 descent that barrels 1,200 feet in just one mile to the bottom of Fort Mountain.  

Photo courtesy of Ray Swords
The Mile 12 downhill, which looks like a vertical descent on the elevation chart, gives new meaning to the phrase, “quad killer”.  The descent starts out in a low-key manner down a grassy mountain bike trail covered with short grass and small fixed rocks, but quickly turns an unforgiving loose surface of scree and boulders.  All the while, the treetops below in the distance never seem to get any closer.  I ran this section as fast as possible in my hesitant technical downhill style, since I am always self-conscious about my knees collapsing under my weight on steep downgrades.  I planned each step along the way to minimize the chances of catching my toe on a rock and possibly tumbling several feet in a bloody mess.  I also occasionally galloped down the trail in a skipping style or ran with my legs far apart, almost bowlegged, to improve my balance.  Despite my clumsy mannerisms, I somehow managed to pass one runner on the way to the bottom.

When I finally did reach the jeep roads at the bottom of Fort Mountain, my knees and quads thanked me, but I was still numbingly tired.  I arrived at the halfway point aid station, relieved to see some friends, Mike, Jeff, and Perry, working the supplies.  When Perry told me that I was doing well and that I was ahead of cutoffs, I joked with him that I had been sort of hoping to be cut off at that point.  I refilled my Camelbak for the tough six-mile uninterrupted stretch of jeep road hills that lay ahead, and took off down the trail with an unfamiliar runner at my side.  

This runner, who introduced himself as Bob, ran the downhills and power-walked the climbs with a seemingly effortless style that matched his easygoing humorous demeanor.  It was no surprise to find out that Bob was a fellow Marathon Maniac who completed multiple marathon races and, in fact, was on his second round of completing marathons in all 50 states.  I felt my energy pick up as I kept company with Bob, and I realized that our pace was fast enough to hit the next aid station much faster than expected.  I eventually slowed down on the hills while Bob ran ahead, but I kept him in sight for a long time as we both occasionally passed other runners.  

This jeep road stretch that kicks off the final half of the race is a psychological assault where the hills appear to crest before climbing back down, only to climb steeply on the other side of hidden curves.  The terrain is pleasant enough with its relatively non-technical nature, but the sheer amount of repetitive climbing cycles seems never-ending.   The sight of obscured mining camps and caves always gave me something else to think about, though, and I enjoyed the distractions.  After a lifetime climbing the jeep road hills, I finally reached the downward journey, by way of technical loose rock jeep roads, where leaves and small ferns obscured obstacles.  I ran continuously, though, since I was in a hurry to reach the next aid station before the five-hour mark on my stopwatch.  As my stopwatch read 4:45 hours and I trailed some other runners, I finally reached the next station, where fellow GUTS runner, Phil, and some other volunteers waited, one of them dressed in an alien costume with a light saber.
I refilled my Camelbak in preparation for the brutal two-mile hill climb soon to come.  Another runner asked me about “The Hill” and I told him that, if he had to ask whether or not it was “The Hill”, then it wasn’t “The Hill”.  I was experiencing a good second wind at this point and knew that my nutrition schedule of a gel every half hour was working for me.  The going was slow for the next mile, though, as my Montrail Mountain Masochist shoes stepped on occasional pointed rocks that made me wince with pain.  The trail turned away from the aid station onto a dirt road and then returned to a brief stretch of jeep roads that were covered in stinging nettle bushes.  I felt the stinging briefly, but mentally rubbed dirt on the irritation and kept going.  I wanted to run as much as possible, because I knew that a long walk on the big hill was soon to come. 

I followed trail markings to the right and finally arrived at the foot of the hill.  I looked up the first punishing stretch to see the familiar sight of a runner with a blonde ponytail, and knew that I had caught up with my friend, Aaron.  I yelled his name, then plodded up the hill to where he and another GUTS friend, Frank, climbed ahead.  I took a minute or two to say hello, then went ahead on the steep hill, certain that Aaron and Frank would catch up with me in due time.  

This massive hill that relentlessly spirals upward beside a beautiful mountain stream for a couple of miles seemed easier for me this year, but I still took deliberately short baby steps to conserve energy and focused on attainable landmarks every hundred yards or so.  Along the way, I passed a couple more runners and joked with them that we were getting our money’s worth with this race.  I climbed steadily and eventually reached the marshy fern terrain where the trail terrain changed from relentlessly steep inclines to moderate leaf-covered hills beside creeks and occasional wooden bridges.  I knew that the Last Gasp aid station was waiting in less than a mile, but I could not summon the energy to run the hills just yet.  My newly altered race strategy of avoiding S-Caps was still working, just as it had during the previous week’s StumpJump 50K, but I was silently praying that my legs would not start cramping as I climbed.  I had some Hammer Endurolytes in my Camelbak, but I did not want to use them unless absolutely necessary.
I finally encountered a few flat stretches and short descents that enabled me to run at a reasonable pace, and I was overjoyed to be approaching the Last Gasp aid station next to the park road before the six-hour mark on my stopwatch.  I finally arrived at the station, where a friend, Robert, informed me that I only had 3.9 miles left to go.  I refilled my Camelbak for the last time, took more strawberry hard candies, and began the final portion of Mystery Mountain Marathon.  I was happy to encounter Bob, with whom I had caught up, at this aid station, but he and another runner soon raced out ahead of me on the fast downhill leading away from the aid station.  I kept my race inside my own head and ran steadily at a good pace, so I was able to keep these runners in distant sight for a long time.  

The portion of Mystery Mountain Marathon from the Last Gasp aid station to an unmanned water stop at a campground road was forgivingly non-technical, and I took advantage of the opportunity to pick up pace, realizing that I had a good shot at finishing this race in less than seven hours.  I dispensed with my resolve to treat this race as a training run, and decided that I wanted to pull a decent finish out of my hat after all.  My enthusiasm and my ability to run for longer stretches gave me a new confidence as I reached the unmanned campground road aid station table and passed it without stopping.  The final punishing hill climb that curved back and forth to the top of a crest overlooking the power line hill went by slowly, but surely, as I ate my last gel and moved forward with resolve.  

I reached the crest of the hill, entered a clearing under the overcast sky, and looked down the never-ending descent down the power line hill that I had climbed up hours earlier.  I broke out into a slow careful run on the steep portion, but eventually picked up my pace when I heard volunteers from the aid station calling my name.  Just before I reached the aid station, Ed, a veteran 100-mile runner, caught up with me, and I decided to keep up with him to the finish.  We ran the final mile around the lake with me struggling to keep pace, and talked about our strategies for Pinhoti 100.  Cheers from the finish area spurred us onward, and we made our last turn around the lake and through the woods to emerge into the parking area.  I crossed the finish just behind Ed to complete my third Mystery Mountain Marathon in 6:42:45, placing 68 out of 89 finishers.  

Photo courtesy of Candy Findley
I picked up my MMM pint glass and one of the handmade wooden medals that Aaron had generously completed for all of the runners in the days leading up to the race, then made my way to the food tables, where friends congratulated me.  My third year finish for what has become my favorite race event was now behind me and, as tired as I was, I already missed the Fort Mountain trails.  I changed into comfortable clothes, hung out at the finish area for another half hour to welcome other finishers, then climbed into my truck for the drive home.
I looked forward to reaching the bottom of Fort Mountain as I drove down the curvy road back to Chatsworth, where I knew that a convenience store with a cold Diet Coke would hit the spot while I parked to update my Facebook with my race results.  My Mystery Mountain Marathon adventure was not quite over, though.

Photo courtesy of Kerry Dycus
When I finally reached the bottom of the long road back to Chatsworth from the mountain, I drove by a couple who was ambling alongside the road and I noticed that they were both wearing race numbers.  I quickly turned my truck around, pulled up beside the runners, and asked if they were lost.  I found out that the couple had taken a wrong turn just after the Mile 18 aid station and run the wrong way down a dirt road, where they ended up going for several more miles off the course.   They both broke into smiles when I told them that I would drive them back to the race finish area.  I took them back up to Fort Mountain State Park to the finish area, where they could check in with the Race Director so that all runners could be accounted for before volunteers went home.   I drove down the mountain a second time and finally reached a convenience store and a cold Diet Coke.  

Thanks to the GUTS crowd for another wonderfully epic Mystery Mountain Marathon.  This is a rough race course that several runners compare to a 50-mile ultra, but I cannot recommend the experience enough for anyone looking for a day spent on beautiful trails in October, when the leaves are starting to change.  Hopefully, the possibility of my returning to this course in 2012 for a fourth year in a row is no mystery at all.  

See you on the trails.



  1. Nice report as always, good thing you were there for those lost runners.

  2. Another epic adventure! Good report, Jason! Congrats on great race!!

  3. It was nice to briefly meet you at the start of the race! Thanks to your detailed race reports I pretty much knew what to expect. I must not have read quite as closely as I thought though because that last long hill nearly broke me! I knew it was coming but just didn't expect it to last for soooo long.

    This race was hard but I thought it was great. I look forward to kicking the mountains butt next year.

  4. That looks like a fantastic race, Jason! I'd love to run it someday.
    Congrats on a great run and what appears to be some very cool race goodies!

  5. Stumbled on your blog and have really enjoyed reading your detailed race reports! I am so ashamed to admit my spirits were somewhat lifted when I read about your "falling mishaps" on the Pine Mountain course, as that trail has taken me down twice now. Running the 50k this weekend, and hoping I can stay upright all 31 miles! Keep up the great blogging...and running!

  6. Thanks Jason. Nice report. That was good mental preparation for me.