Thursday, June 20, 2013

DNF: Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race 6/14/13 (Race Report)

On June 14, 2013, I had a DNF at the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race when I arrived at the finish line of the first 18-mile stage after the four-hour time cutoff. 

Photo courtesy of Charlene Simmons
The Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race, part of the Rock/Creek Trail Series, consists of three stages over three days on the beautiful trail systems around and above the city.  The first stage takes place at the Raccoon Mountain Reservoir, along 18 miles of moderately technical trails overlooking the city of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River.  The second stage is located a few miles away at Lookout Mountain, along 22 miles of hilly trails and creek crossings.  The third and final stage poses a challenge to the toughest of runners with its 20 miles of rocky climbs on the Signal Mountain trails just north of the city. 

Since I was still running cautiously due to the overuse injury that had led to my DNF two months earlier at the Umstead 100 Endurance Run, where I had reached Mile 37.5 with an aching left heel and inflamed Achilles tendons before being advised by the medical staff to drop from the race, I knew that a successful finish of all three stages of the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race was a tall order.   This would not be the first time that I had shown up for a race with insufficient preparation, though, and my enthusiasm blinded me to the downward trajectory that my running fitness had suffered so far this year.  I had not run farther than an 11-mile distance over the previous two months, and I arrived in Chattanooga the day before the race with the assumption that I might be pulled from the race sometime over the weekend, but I was all smiles as I picked up my race number and settled down with friends at The Crash Pad hostel that would serve as the race headquarters.  I simply told others that I was just there to have fun and to run as far as I could. 

An apparent premonition of things to come factored into my choice of running attire when I woke up from my comfortable bunk at The Crash Pad on the morning of the first stage.  I knew that I would never hear the end of it from running friends if I neglected to wear my trademark fluorescent orange running shirt at least once during the event, so I joked with others that I was wearing the shirt for the first stage just in case I did not make it to the other two stages.  Since runners were encouraged to carpool from The Crash Pad to each stage location, I caught a ride to Raccoon Mountain with two local friends, Heidi and Lara.  Lara and I had run together at comparable paces during several previous events, so we had decided to partner up and try to beat the cutoffs together for this first day. 

I have always enjoyed the attention to detail that Rock/Creek gives to each Chattanooga race in the series, and this event was no exception.   The sight of the elaborate race banners at the start/finish location gave me a jolt of enthusiasm and adrenaline that amplified over the next hour as I greeted several friends and acquaintances.  Lara and I settled into the back of the pack as Race Director Randy Whorton counted us down to the start over the loudspeakers. 

Photo courtesy of Katie Fisher
The first mile of the Raccoon Mountain course was completed at a snail’s pace, as I found myself near the back of a single-file line after a short stretch of pavement turned onto the trail.  I have always enjoyed starting my races in a relaxed fashion, so the brief setback did not concern me.  Since this stage took place on the same trail system where I had run the Rock/Creek Scenic City Trail Marathon in 2011, I knew that the runnable single-track trails that twisted back and forth in endless switchbacks would enable me to open up into a comfortable pace soon enough.  Once the crowd thinned out, Lara and I took advantage of the easy terrain by running nonstop for several minutes at a time up and down gentle inclines and descents, slowing down to a fast hike only occasionally when the hills were steeper than normal.  We had been blessed with unseasonably cool weather for mid-June on this particular morning, and I was grateful for the 70-degree temperatures.  A thunderstorm had swept through Chattanooga the previous afternoon, but most of the trails were dry, and my shoes had plenty of traction on the rocks.    

The first several miles of this stage were pleasantly uneventful as Lara and I ran back and forth on switchback trails with gentle slopes.  I would later regret my decision not to eat any of the gels that I was carrying during the first half of the event, but I was feeling energetic early on, and I assumed that the remainder of the course would be just as forgiving.  We caught up with two more local friends, Woolery and Amanda, and enjoyed talking with them as the trails ascended to a ridge that overlooked the city of Chattanooga before twisting back to the first aid station at Mile 4.7.  My water bottle was still full, so I grabbed a small piece of cake from an aid station bowl and kept moving.  The most luxuriously easy section of trail greeted me over the next mile or two, and I ran nonstop as the trail emerged from the woods onto a gravel road next to an electrical switchyard.  Time flew by and the miles must have accumulated faster than I thought, because I soon arrived at the second aid station and was surprised when a volunteer told me that I was at Mile 8.

Photo courtesy of Katie Fisher
Upon arriving at this aid station, I was also warned that I had reached this point in the race just under the cutoff time.  I remembered being held up during the first mile after starting in the back of a long line of runners, though, and I was confident that my current pace would enable me to finish well within the four-hour limit.  Lara and I ran out of the aid station and entered a maddeningly repetitive series of switchbacks that doubled back and forth on themselves several times over.  It was on this particular stretch that I started feeling the same ache in my left heel that had led to my failure to finish Umstead 100.

The pain in my left heel felt similar to plantar fasciitis, but the ache was accompanied by inflammation in my Achilles and ankle.  After my Umstead DNF, I had enjoyed two weeks of complete rest before returning to my local running group for Saturday morning training runs on pavement.  Since the symptoms were not as apparent with my road shoes, I gradually felt my running mojo almost return to full force over the next few Saturdays as I enjoyed 10-mile distances on local Atlanta routes.  As I passed the halfway point of this first stage on Raccoon Mountain, though, I was dismayed to realize that my injury was still present and that the pain was amplified in my trail shoes as I ran on rocky surfaces.  I was still moving at a decent clip, though, and I temporarily shrugged off the ache to keep running. 

The 25 pounds or so that I had regrettably gained over the past seven months with my injury setbacks and poor diet choices since my Pinhoti 100 finish back in November were not so easy to shrug away, though.  I was still much lighter than I had been during my previous years of trail running, but the recent loss of fitness still took a lot of wind out of my sails, and I was reminded of my need to return to peak condition.  The true annoyance of an injury setback for any runner is that, once the runner returns to a consistent training routine, the runs and exercises that used to feel effortless are now difficult and burdensome.  Many runners can deal with this in stride, so to speak, but I have always had a tendency to fall into a psychological downward spiral where I continue to compare my current fitness lows to my previous highs and get down on myself for being slower and heavier.  Fatigue hit me like a lead brick this time around, and, when I finally arrived at the third aid station in a tired daze after running and walking switchbacks for an eternity and was told that I was only at Mile 12, my shoulders slumped and I expressed visible disappointment.  A mile or so after leaving the aid station, the increasing pain in my left heel reduced me to a slight limp, and I slowed down as midday temperatures rose.  I asked Lara to run on ahead, telling her that I was over this whole running thing and that it was time to stick a fork in me at this particular event. 

Photo courtesy of Katie Fisher
I was embarrassed at having shown up for this race in such terrible shape, but I shifted my focus and decided to concentrate on simply enjoying the beauty of the trail instead of trying to finish within the time limit.  There was no shortage of beauty on these trails, fortunately, and I was always pleased to see the Tennessee River below me whenever the trail route skirted the periphery of the mountain.  I knew from my previous experience on these trails at the Scenic City Trail Marathon that I would soon reach an awesome section at the foot of the massive rockfill dam, and I looked forward to arriving at that point. 

Anticipation soon gave way to frustration, though, because the rockfill dam section seemed increasingly unreachable as the trail kept turning back on itself so that I felt as though I was always getting farther from my destination instead of closing the distance.  The pain in my heel had reduced me to a walk, and I was trying to conserve the last few sips in my water bottle.  Woolery and Amanda caught up with me as I finally reached the rock trail at the foot of the dam, and I gratefully accepted when Woolery offered me some water from an extra bottle that he was carrying.  As they continued ahead, I looked at my watch and realized that I would be hard-pressed to finish the next couple of miles in time. 

Photo courtesy of Katie Fisher
After limping along on a beautiful trail section that gradually ascended to the park grounds, I broke into a slow run as I made the final turn and laughed when I saw that volunteers were taking down the finish line banner.  I had finished the first stage of the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race six minutes or so after the time limit.  I shook hands with Randy Whorton at the finish and told him that I looked forward to returning to this event in better shape next time.  I greeted friends and spent the next several minutes resting my legs in an ice bath that volunteers had set up in an inflatable pool.  I felt no disappointment, and I was actually pleased with myself for finishing 18 miles on trails when my previous two months of running had been limited to shorter distances on pavement routes.  My injury was a concern, so I resolved to visit a doctor this time, as I should have done after my Umstead DNF two months ago.  I have long ago learned not to complain about results that I did not get for work that I did not do, and my easygoing demeanor after my DNF was an acceptance that I needed to put more effort into training properly for my next big event. 

My race was over, but my weekend was fortunately far from over.  Since I was booked at The Crash Pad for the weekend and since I was enjoying the company of running friends, I decided to stay involved in the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race by returning the next day to cheer for friends as they ran the second stage at Lookout Mountain.  After returning to the hostel from Raccoon Mountain and having lunch with several runners, one friend, Justin, and I decided to take a bus to the North Shore area of Chattanooga to look at a vintage record store.  When we finished browsing the stores, we were amused to discover that the North Shore bus routes had ended for the day and that we had to walk back across the river.  This was a blessing in disguise, because walking a few extra miles in the late afternoon completely removed my soreness from the morning run.  The heel pain remained, but my legs felt otherwise normal by day’s end.  Once Justin and I returned to the hostel, I took advantage of a sports massage setup to have my injury examined, and I was told that I was suffering from a strain of my left abductor hallucis muscle. 

The following morning, I carpooled to Lookout Mountain from the hostel, and walked the first mile of the route with a friend after the runners started so that I could take some photos of two notable waterfalls.  We then drove up to the highest point of the race at Covenant College so that we could cheer for runners as they climbed a steep power line trail to arrive at the halfway aid station.  Upon returning to the start/finish area, I cheered for friends next to a bridge aid station as they embarked on their final loop of the stage.  After some volunteers abandoned the bridge aid station, I noticed that a few runners were still approaching the station for water and food after crossing the finish line, so I jumped in to work the aid station for a short while. 

I have discussed races in long-winded detail on my blog, but I have never written about my volunteer work at running events.  It is easy for us runners to take the presence of volunteers for granted, and I always have to remind myself that the aid stations that I see on forest trails out in the middle of nowhere are not simply beamed down from an aid station mothership in the sky.  The setup of an aid station at a trail race often involves the transport of tents, bulk water bottles, food, and medical supplies up and down remote forest roads, and volunteers must work long hours to support the runners after setting up the station and before taking the station back down.  On general principle, I like to volunteer at one race for every two or three races that I participate in as a runner.  This is a fun way to make new friends and earn some good karma for my next race, although I usually feel as though I have run an ultramarathon of my own after I work an aid station for a day. 

Photo courtesy of Mark McKnight
On the final stage of the race, where runners would complete 20 brutally technical miles at Signal Mountain, I decided to take advantage of the full volunteer experience by arriving at the Mile 11.8 Signal Point aid station location before the supplies had arrived so that I could help carry the supplies down a hill to a beautiful mountain overlook, help set up the aid station itself, refill water bottles and hydration packs for the runners, and help break the aid station down after the last runners had passed through.   I was admittedly envious of my friends who were still competing in the event, but I also knew that they would be happy to see a familiar face after climbing the treacherous steps up to this particular aid station location.  For the next few hours, I was inspired by the sight of many talented friends who reached the aid station in good spirits on their way to the finish line, and I enjoyed spending time on this scenic overlook above the Tennessee River. 

Although my own Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race experience did not turn out quite the way that I had expected, I still had the time of my life hitting the trails for a run at the first stage and then cheering for my friends for the remainder of the event.  Trail races are like family reunions in so many ways, and I am always blessed to spend time with old friends while making new friends.  Spending a few days in the coolest city of the Southeast was icing on the cake. 

Thanks to Randy and Kris Whorton for putting the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race together with the Rock/Creek crowd.  The dedication of the race workers and the camaraderie of the runners inspire me to return to Chattanooga as soon as possible after participating in Rock/Creek races, and I have already decided to return to this stage race next year for another bite at the apple.  I have my work cut out for me with a patient recovery from my injury and a running comeback over the summer, but my fun weekend at this event has given me a shot in the arm of enthusiasm to tackle these challenges. 

See you on the trails.



  1. I'm glad you wrote about your experience volunteering at the aids! I really need to get out there and do that. I've done trail work before but never helped out at a race. I will definitely do that this year. Your entire attitude about the outcome of your stage race represents everything that this sport is about. Class act Jason. I'm glad I got to hang with ya! Looking forward to next time bro!

  2. Way to turn the DNF into a fun weekend of hanging out and helping out! I need to remind myself to have that sort of attitude next time I have an injury! Glad you enjoyed your weekend, thanks for volunteering, and take it easy and heal up!

  3. I totally understand the frustration of having an injury and coming back from it with reduced speed and endurance and trying to compare your current state to your previous peak state, but know that you will get back to that peak state and even surpass it. It just takes patience and determination, and you have both of those, I can tell. I love this race report and the positive perspective you took on seeing the race 'from both sides of the aid station' as you put it. Thank-you for this. It is a good lesson for all of us in taking what comes your way and making the best of it. See you at next year's stage race if not before!

  4. Jason - We've all been there before and it can help motivate us forward, if we let it.

    Hey, are you running Pinhoti?

  5. Hey Chris! I'm pacing Jason Sullivan at Pinhoti this year, and I cannot wait. Hope to see you out there.