Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mount Cheaha 50K 2/23/13 (Race Report)

On February 23, 2013, I completed my third Mount Cheaha 50K race with a finish time of 7:54:55, and improved on my previous course record by over 15 minutes.

Photo courtesy of Brooke Nicholls Nelson
Anyone familiar with the old Spider-Man comics knows the often-quoted theme, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  This wisdom applies to the world of endurance running, because an improved fitness level comes with an increased responsibility to maintain that fitness level.  During the fall of 2012, I had achieved a peak running fitness that led to several new personal speed records and to the completion of my first 100-mile ultramarathon.   When an IT band injury derailed my running in December and struggles with burnout and illness stood in my path during January and early February of this year, I allowed my fitness to backslide during a slow recovery that is still ongoing.  Life has a way of giving us a wake-up call if we get complacent, and I got my wake-up call on the rain-soaked trails and fog-obscured ridges of the Pinhoti Trail on a cold and wet day at this year’s Mount Cheaha 50K.  Fortunately, wake-up calls can be received with a smile, and this was one such occasion as I rediscovered the fun of braving the elements on challenging terrain during what has become one of my favorite race events.

As I climbed out of my sleeping bag at Bald Rock Lodge at Cheaha State Park in Alabama on race morning to the sound of pre-dawn raindrops on the roof, I realized that a few missteps in planning were evidence that my head and heart were still not quite in the game.  I had overestimated the cold temperatures and neglected to bring a short-sleeved shirt in my bag in case of warmer weather, so I made a quick decision to leave my trademark fluorescent orange long-sleeve in the bag in favor of an old loose-fitting white Atlanta Half Marathon shirt that would be more weather-friendly as the temperatures rose several hours into the race.  After I boarded one of the school buses that would take us from the finish area at Bald Rock Lodge to the starting line several miles away, I also realized that I had forgotten to put on my wristwatch that I used during long-distance races to time my nutrition so that I would eat a running gel every half hour.  I shrugged this oversight off without any real concern, because I was not expecting much out of myself on this particular day.  My IT band injury was still a concern after the pain had plagued me during the 24 Hours of HOSTELity race a month ago, I weighed 13 pounds heavier than I had at the starting line of Pinhoti 100 back in November, and I was still working through my burnout phase where I was unmotivated to run any distance farther than 10 miles.

I may not have been enthusiastic about running an ultramarathon on this day, but my excitement to spend time with great friends overcame any hesitation as I reconnected with several familiar faces at the start area.  Ultramarathon races are almost like family reunions and the social aspects of the races is what won me over to the sport years ago.  Race Director Todd Henderson gave a short pre-race address over the loudspeakers, and then presented us with an opportunity to kick this particular race off in a unique fashion by making our own “Harlem Shake” video and dancing around to the music.  With the task of creating the best “Harlem Shake” video on the planet now behind us, we all lined up to start running.  I settled into the back of the pack as the official start to Mount Cheaha 50K sounded off with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Photo courtesy of MarathonRuns MRuns
After several minutes of casual walking in the back of the long line of runners, I jumped over the first of many creek crossings only to have my trail shoes soaked in a puddle a few seconds later.  Running through deep puddles of water would be an ongoing activity throughout the race, so I simply began to “embrace the suck” by running straight through the water while other runners tried to negotiate the water obstacles.  The cold water on my feet made me wince each time, but the reckless abandon of running and walking through mud and water had its own offbeat appeal.  After splashing through one particularly treacherous section during a hill climb, I joked with another runner that my best church clothes were now ruined.

As I trailed behind some others on the first notable mountain climb through a rather bleak setting of fallen trees, fog, and wet landscapes, I commented that the trail made me think of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road.  A rock formation in the mist at the top of the mountain added to the eerie effect.  I became acquainted with a hazard that would greet me several more times during the race when my feet slid on a wet rock on this mountain, but I managed not to fall from this first slip.  The trek down from this mountain on the way to the first aid station of the course is one of the most fun downhill runs of any race and, although the wet conditions necessitated caution this time around, I enjoyed going down this hill on the third mile of the race a lot more than I had enjoyed plodding up the same hill in the opposite direction at Pinhoti 100 four months ago.

Photo courtesy of Michael-Sherry Slenzak McPhee 
I arrived at the bottom of the hill to the sight of several cheering volunteers and cameras.  Just like the Pinhoti 100 race every November, Mount Cheaha 50K is put together by some of the friendliest people in the world, and every aid station along the course elevates my spirits.  This time around, the fact that I still had 28 miles left to run did not dampen my disposition as I gratefully accepted some orange slices from the aid station table and kept moving.  In retrospect, I think that going into this race with no expectations helped my mental game on tough trail conditions.

Photo courtesy of Graham Gallemore
The sections between the Mile 3 aid station and the Mile 8 aid station were mostly uneventful, although I was taken off guard by the amount of water on the trail, even along the higher elevation areas.  Many parts of the Pinhoti Trail were completely submerged, and, due to the well-established trenches of the trail terrain, running along these trails was almost like running in the middle of a small stream.  I was wearing Montrail Mountain Masochist trail shoes that are amazing when it comes to their ability to drain water quickly, and my CEP compression socks were similarly suited for the challenge.  After a series of quick climbs, I emerged from the trail onto a forest road that disappeared into fog with every turn.  Mount Cheaha 50K is a race known for its beauty, as hill climbs and mountaintop ridges open up into views of the Talladega National Forest below.  On this particular day, however, the scenic overlooks were completely obscured by fog.  I enjoyed the different views of a familiar landscape and wished several times that I had brought a camera.  A remarkably luxurious downhill mile on the forest road tempted me to speed up, but I held back on my pace after remembering that I had tired myself out early on this stretch during my two previous experiences with this race.

After grabbing a handful of orange slices at the Mile 8 aid station, I turned off the forest road onto my least favorite section of Mount Cheaha 50K, a long mountain ridge path marked by constant ankle-twisting rocks.  Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through Hell, keep going.”  I kept the quote in mind as I soldiered on by power-walking though the more insidious rocky stretches and running at a relaxed pace as terrain allowed.  Race Director Todd Henderson and several others had cleared the leaves off this tricky section a few days before, so many of the obstacles were in plain sight.  Still, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I finally busted my tail on one of the slippery rocks, and that moment arrived when my feet slid out from under me and I landed on my back on a massive boulder around Mile 10.  When a runner several feet in front of me heard the audible thud and my resultant exclamations, she turned around to ask if I were okay.  I stood up, thanked her, and kept running, although some of the wind had been knocked out of my sails for a short while.

Photo courtesy of Michael-Sherry Slenzak McPhee
The rocky path to the Mile 15 aid station continued to test my legs, my fortitude, and, sometimes, my arms and back.  I took a couple more bad falls early on, and then slowed my pace to a brisk walk to avoid injury.  The sight of another runner lying injured to the side of the trail with emergency medical personnel preparing to transport him out of the woods reinforced my decision to walk the treacherous rock-covered areas where the wet weather made for slippery terrain.  This did not prevent me from slipping on occasional rocks and shaking with mental exhaustion as I struggled to remain standing.  Since I had neglected to wear my stopwatch and, therefore, had no cues to remind me to eat a gel every half hour, I simply went by feel and ate a gel every few miles when I felt a mental low approaching or when I became particularly irritable at the trail obstacles.

My IT band was mercifully pain-free so far during this event, but I was still moving along at a slow pace simply from being out of shape from my extended injury recovery.  I had learned during the previous month’s 24-hour event that it is tough to keep moving when my heart is not invested in a race.  I felt the same way along this hazardous trail section to Mile 15, and I began trying to rationalize a DNF (Did Not Finish) in my head.  Every time I slipped on a wet rock or a muddy downhill and shook with frazzled nerves, I reminded myself that I could simply drop out at the Mile 15 aid station.  I remembered, however, that I had suffered similar mental lows during this section at my first two Mount Cheaha 50K races, though, so my struggles on this day were nothing new.  I did not realize at the time that I was actually moving noticeably faster along this section than I ever had before, due to my lighter weight and due to the fact that I was not having trouble from cramps or blisters as I had during the previous races.

Photo courtesy of Michael-Sherry Slenzak McPhee
The sight of friends returning from the Mile 15 aid station on a short out-and-back trail cheered me up, but I still walked into the aid station in a dazed state.  Two small cups of Coke put some life back into me as I was refilling my CamelBak with water.   My craving for the big orange slices at these aid stations was still in effect, so I grabbed a whole orange from the table and peeled it as I walked back to the trail.  I made my way slowly along the rock garden path leading down the out-and-back trail in the opposite direction while encouraging friends behind me on the course who were making their way to the aid station.

The closest thing to instantaneous relief on any ultramarathon course is the shift in terrain from treacherous rocks to luxurious pine straw trails once a runner leaves the Mile 15 aid station at Mount Cheaha 50K.  I enjoyed the change of pace from limping along loose boulders to running happily down an extended gradual descent alongside a creek ravine.  Even when I arrived at the bottom of the trail to find myself ankle-deep in swampy floodwaters, my mood continued to soar.  In fact, the freezing cold water felt good on my rock-battered feet, and I splashed through the water in the middle of the trails instead of trying to negotiate the mud along the edges as other runners had done.  My progress was still slower than expected, and I enjoyed some extended walk breaks, but relentless forward motion enabled me to keep several other runners in sight while remaining ahead of everyone behind me.

Photo courtesy of Brooke Nicholls Nelson
After a notable creek crossing through almost knee-deep water, the trail ascended into a series of mountain switchbacks where I maintained a steady pace to draw the runners in front of me closer while leaving the ones behind me out of sight.  The switchbacks seemed never to end, and the repetition eventually began to sap my motivation.  As I arrived at the Mile 18 aid station, one volunteer friend, Josh, congratulated me on my “beat down dog look.”  I thanked him as I took a handful of orange slices and a couple of molasses cookies, and then continued along on the endless series of switchback mountainside trails.  These trails wove along the sides of hills at a camber that aggravated my ankles and further reduced my enthusiasm.   The runners whom I encountered along this stretch apparently felt the same way about the trail.  As I passed one woman, she asked me, “Why do we sign up for these things?”  I replied in a weary voice, “Fortune and glory, kid.  Fortune and glory.”

I eventually caught up with a local ultrarunning friend, Robert, and enjoyed conversing with him for a couple of miles as I followed in his footsteps along trail ledges and over slippery mountainside floodwater crossings.  Occasional dull aches reverberated from my IT band, but these were few and far between, and I was relieved that my injury recovery had enabled me to make it this far without any real pain.  I still felt sluggish beyond compare, though, and I resolved to spend the next few weeks returning to peak fitness.  Thankfully, my uphill power-walking skills were still intact, so I eventually caught up with a handful of other runners on the many climbs along this section.

Photo courtesy of Brooke Nicholls Nelson
The sound of rushing water in the distance was a premonition of one of the most notable challenges of this race, the crossing of Chinnabee Creek.  On a good day, Chinnabee Creek has a low water level that allows runners to jump from one rock to another without getting their feet wet.  This was not a good day.  The water level was high with rushing floodwaters, so volunteers had tied a rope to trees on either side of the creek to enable us to cross over safely.  I climbed down into the freezing water with several other runners behind me, grabbed the rope for dear life, and inched across the water as a volunteer friend, Brooke, took photos of the runners from the opposite bank.  In my tired state, I briefly entertained the idea of letting go of the rope and floating on my back down the creek until it eventually carried me out to the sea, but I ignored the temptation and continued to move steadily.  The water deepened to hip level just before I reached the opposite bank and the coldness gave me a jolt that stayed with me for the next several minutes.  I waved to friends along the out-and-back trail that led to the Lake Chinnabee aid station at Mile 22, where I refilled my CamelBak.  The aid station was out of orange slices, so I grabbed a handful of cookies and a banana before returning to the out-and-back and splashing through ankle-deep water puddles.

I enjoyed scenic views of the creek waterfalls for the next mile as I negotiated slippery rocks and wet wooden stairs.  The trail eventually withdrew back into the forest along another series of endless twists and turns alongside mountain hills, but I moved along at a faster pace, still invigorated by the head rush from the raging Chinnabee Creek crossing.  I was eager to reach the finish line, but I was also rediscovering the fun of ultramarathons after my long burnout.  When I had awakened that morning, the last thing in the world that I had wanted to do was to travel 31 miles on my feet on a wet and cold day, and the flooded trail conditions had exceeded my worst fears, but I was somehow having good time dealing with the various problems along the trail and turning those problems into opportunities.  My disposition took a turn for the better, and, as I gradually started to pass other runners, I encouraged each one and shared jokes about the insanity of splashing through ankle-deep water trails all along the way.

Photo courtesy of Brooke Nicholls Nelson
I have a propensity to become burned out on running after participating in frequent races, and often need a vacation from the running scene, but I always return to these challenging trail runs for a strange sort of gratification and fulfillment.  Over the past couple of years, as I had felt stuck in a rut with my life and my career, the occasional task of relentless forward motion from one point to another on a rugged trail somehow puts my world into perspective and, like a religious experience, illuminates me with a dose of confidence and ease.  Real-world realities have made it necessary for me to reduce the number of my races over the next year, but I think of this as a positive situation, because running carefully-chosen epic fun events on a less-frequent basis may prevent the burnout that I sometimes experience and help me to achieve balance in life, as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid might say.

After a couple of miles of winding trails, I eventually emerged onto a long dirt road straightaway with rolling hills, and broke out into an extended nonstop run.  My IT band was feeling fine, and, aside from an occasional shooting pain in my left foot, I was still in good shape to run.  I caught up with a handful of runners as the road turned upward and we all took a hiking break before reaching an intersection with a mile of paved road that would take us to the final aid station.  I do not always care for pavement during trail races, but the change in terrain was refreshing this time around, and I made up for lost time by not having to run over slippery rocks or water crossings at long last.  I was starting to pass runners more often, and I had not been passed in a while, so I vowed to keep a good thing going.

Photo courtesy of Brooke Nicholls Nelson
I arrived at the Mile 28 aid station with tired legs, but good spirits, and picked up a handful of orange slices before moving on to Blue Hell.  The famous Blue Hell section, which climbs over 900 feet in less than a half mile, has broken down many a runner on the final stretch, but I have always enjoyed turning my brain off and simply climbing steadily without the pressure to run.  I was also glad for the opportunity to climb up Blue Hell at Mile 28 of Mount Cheaha 50K instead of having to climb down it at Mile 42 of the Pinhoti 100, since negotiating the boulders is easier on the ascent.  Of course, I was not necessarily all smiles during the climb, and I wearily encouraged other runners while expressing some disappointment that I was not going as fast at this race as I should have.  One foot in front of the other was getting me there, though, as the path climbed away from a section lined with tree roots and into a sharp-angled ascent up boulders and crevices, where I often had to grab trees to support myself.  The wet climate presented a new hazard, because I occasionally slipped on the wet boulders and had to catch my fall by grabbing trees or other rocks.

One of the cruelest false summits in the world opened up before me when I finally reached the top of Blue Hell to see a paved road turning upward and away toward the top of the mountain.  I was relieved not to be slipping on boulders, though, and I power-walked at a brisk pace up the road by following the orange flag markings and ate one last gel for a quick burst of energy that would ease my nerves after climbing Blue Hell in wet weather.  With a group of local running friends catching up close behind me, I hurried up the road and turned up a rocky switchback to a sign pointing out the altitude peak of Mount Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama.

Photo courtesy of Michael-Sherry Slenzak McPhee
I broke into a nonstop run as the paved road flattened and continued to run nonstop for the final mile and half to the finish.  I followed the course markings onto one final rocky trail as the road ended and negotiated a series of turns made more aggravating by the presence of rain water in the middle of the path.  The final mile of this race is always exciting, because I can hear the crowd from the finish line long before I see them, but I had to run carefully to avoid face-planting on the rocks and water.  I avoided the temptation to slow down to a power-walk and continued to run as the trail turned uphill to the final climb to Bald Rock Lodge.

As I passed a couple of runners and emerged into the final paved hill that would take me to the finish line, I saw three local friends just ahead.  I have always considered it poor etiquette to pass a runner just before the finish line of an ultramarathon-distance race, because I am only proving that I did not manage my pace well enough during the early miles.  I was still riding a second wind, though, and could not resist the temptation to get through the finish line as quickly as I could.  I waved to my friends, accelerated my pace, and crossed the finish line of Mount Cheaha 50K in 7:54:55 to place 140 out of 197 finishers.  Despite a tough day on the trails, I had managed to beat my previous course record by just over 15 minutes.

Photo courtesy of Angel Orlando Baez
I congratulated my friends, accepted the amazing wood plaque finisher’s award, and spent the next several minutes talking with fellow runners at the foot of Bald Rock Lodge before going inside and taking a quick shower before the drive home.  As always, the Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS) had made a fine showing at this race, with several runners finishing with new personal record times, and I was inspired once again by the excellence of my friends.

Thanks to Todd Henderson, his family, and the many Alabama volunteers for making my third Mount Cheaha 50K race one of my favorite ultramarathon experiences to date, wet trails and all.  Thanks to my fellow runners for the company along the way, and congratulations to them for beating the weather down on a rugged course.  I was reminded how much I love the Alabama section of the Pinhoti Trail, and am actually considering returning to the Pinhoti 100 again in the fall.

See you on the trails.



  1. Another awesome report, Jason! Congrats on your Cheaha PR!!!

  2. hey man, great run! That was a tough one. This was my first Cheaha 50K and I have never run through so much water. I gave up trying to avoid it after a mile or two. By the end of the race my left foot was hurting and I found myself intentionally finding water to step in to ease the pain. Blue hell got me for sure. I'm definitely going back next year for revenge on it... I'm contemplating Pinhoti this year as well. Anyway, good report man, see you at the next one.


  3. Nice job out there! You really pulled something special from those trails man. Well done.

  4. Way to go and congrats on the course PR, Jason! Great report too.

  5. Nice write up! How come I didn't get one of those awesome mason!

  6. You're the guy yelling "Runners" along the trail at Red Top yesterday, aren't you?

    1. Yes! That was me. I volunteer at Red Top Rumble every year. "Runnerrrrrrrrrs!"

  7. Thanks for a great overview of the course. Lots of info for my first Cheaha this Saturday