My heart was both happy and heavy as the engine on my rental Dodge revved and I pulled out of the Crash Pad parking lot and headed for the highway.
Four days earlier, I wondered if coming to Tennessee and attempting to run the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race was a good idea given the dubious condition of my left knee and two weeks of barely existent running. Maybe I should cancel the trip, save a few bucks, and just give it a shot next year, I thought.
Now on Sunday, with three days of running, three mountains and 60 miles of trail conquered – and a flashy silver and Tennessee Orange finisher’s jacket to show for it – I didn’t want to go home. I first learned of this event 14 months ago and immediately added it to my 2013 schedule. I signed up Jan. 1 with high hopes that this would be a top-notch event, and every one of my expectations was surpassed. Everything about it was superior, from the organization of the stage race, to the people involved, to the trails themselves.
I left a piece of my heart in Chattanooga, and it’s rewarding to be able to say that after dreaming about an event for so long.
Do yourself a favor and browse the Rock/Creek race schedule. Find one that fits your schedule, and sign up. While almost all trail races offer their own particular buzz, Rock/Creek Outfitters and the good folks at Wild Trails made this the first out-of-town race I’ve run where I’ve felt like a local. Extra credit for that goes to stage race co-founder Kris Whorton who I met and packet pick-up and was then greeted with a warm smile and on a first-name basis daily for the rest of the weekend. Others received that same treatment no matter how far they traveled for the race – and the sold-out event was capped at 250 runners. That’s a lot of names to know!
All of the volunteers were incredibly friendly and supportive, the aid stations were well organized and efficient, and post race beverages and ice baths were abundant. The schwag was classy, too. Who wants a boxy-cut tech-T when you can get one with an athletic cut and a sharp design? I hope I don’t wear the shirt out, because it’s already a favorite. The finisher’s jacket was a nice touch, too. Both functional, packable, light and sharp!
Digging deeper into the details that were well thought out: the race organizers are tight with the owners of The Crash Pad, the best hostel outside of the Swiss Alps that I’ve crashed in. The hostel was the hub of post-race activity, with free beer in the evenings, slide shows from the day’s race, free breakfast, and nearly every bunk occupied by a runner. Stage races are as much about bringing people together as they are about running, and that detail clearly was prioritized.
Speaking of people, that’s what made the weekend the most memorable. I’ve come to expect that trail folks will be friendly, accommodating and supportive no matter where I run. That’s the nature of the sport, it seems, and I’ve never been disappointed in that regard. That said, of the races I’ve traveled to, the folks at the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race are at the top of my list.
Austin, Texas, sweethearts Laura and Mary – the only runners at Chattanooga who I’d met prior to the trip – adopted me for the weekend. When they weren’t kicking my butt on the trails, they were wonderful lunch and dinner companions, sight-seeing tour guides, and a supply of endless enjoyment. Plus, there were the generous race directors and volunteers (mentioned in the above section); fantastic folks like Luigi, Justin, Jason, Tobey, AD, Molly, Lisa and Lael that I met at the Crash Pad; and all of the other great people who shared conversation and encouragement on the trails throughout the course of three tough days of running.
The greatest thing about stage races, as opposed to individual races, is the fact that when people finish running they don’t just get in the car and go home. Everyone is getting back up and running again the next day and the day after that, so there is a deeper opportunity to not just meet other runners, but to really get to know them, to share with them, and to care about them. That fact was embraced in Chattanooga. Bonds were strengthened, new friendships were made, and there are a lot of folks I’m excited to share the trails with again soon.
Friday – Raccoon Mountain – 18 miles – 1,564 feet of climbing
Day One was the only day I was certain I’d run at Chattanooga given the uncertain condition of my left knee. My doctor gave a vote of confidence after checking it out on Wednesday, telling me to run on it but listen to it. Pain along the upper tibia and tenderness on the inside of the knee had limited me to just 6.5 miles of running in the two weeks leading up to race day. That allowed the pain and soreness to subside, but only running would really let me know how much the knee could handle.
Fortunately, the knee wasn’t a problem. It gave me some discomfort during miles 2 and 4 but then returned to normal. The Raccoon Mountain trails reminded me a lot of my home trails at Clinton State Park in Lawrence, Kansas. They were mostly smooth dirt, totally runnable, with lots of switchbacks that allow you to see the other runners in the woods. The climbs were short and quick, and aid stations were no farther than 6 miles apart. It was nice, easy running to start off the stage race.
My only trouble on Day One was that my calves began cramping at mile 11. That forced me to hike quite a bit during the final 7 to try to prevent any serious issues that might linger for the rest of the weekend.
I finished the 18 miles in 3:17:20, good for 158th out of 205 who beat the 4-hour cutoff. David Riddle was the day’s winner in a course-record time of 1:52:51. Chattanooga has a survive-and-advance format that requires you to beat the cutoff to run the final days. I was happy to advance.
A post-race ice bath, followed by a lunch consisting of cold beer and salmon were exactly what I needed to recover and refuel so I could return to the trail for Day Two.
Saturday – Lookout Mountain – 22 miles – 2,506 feet of climbing
Lookout Mountain was the most fun of the three days. It presented more technicality than day one, but was mostly runnable – unlike Day Three. It also offered the most miles, the coldest ice baths, a rope climb, popsicles at an aid station, and one glorious water crossing.
The race began with a mile-long dash down a gravel road before veering onto a trail that immediately log-jammed as runners fell single-file into a 200-foot climb so steep that a rope was necessary to make the ascent. That was followed by another mile-and-a-half of gradual climbing and 200 more feet of gain before a fast, mostly downhill, three-mile dash brought us back to where we’d started.
I finished that early loop in just under an hour, hit the aid station and headed out – and up – for the next 5.5 miles to the Covenant College aid station. The final two miles to the station required 500 feet of climbing to a sun-baked lookout point that at 2,000 feet was the highest vantage point of the day.
Most of the next five miles were downhill and should have been easy running. I didn’t manage my nutrition well early in the day, however, and I bonked hard at mile 12 as my energy levels crashed. Even hiking was slow despite being on track that should have been fast. I spent most of miles 13 and 14 hiking while forcing down two gels and a full package of Honey Stinger chews before my system reloaded and I was able to settle back into a trot and I was feeling OK by the time I returned to the main aid station to repeat the early loop in reverse.
Most of the loop was the same as before, with the exception of the last part. After descending the rope and running about a half-mile down the road, we veered back into the woods and up the hillside, weaving our way along the bank of Rock Creek. Finally, just 0.3-mile from the finish line, the trail crossed the knee-deep waters of the ice-cold creek. That rejuvenating dip jolted life back into my legs and lifted my spirits to run the final stretch to the finish line.
I finished Day Two in 4:19:00, good for 166th out of 196 who beat the 5-hour cutoff. Riddle again was the day’s champion in 2:16:30.
The coldest ice bath of the weekend awaited as the baby pools were situated on the edge of Rock Creek. Cold beers were plentiful, too, although I admit I wish I’d seen the cooler of PBR before grabbing a still refreshing can of Hazed and Confused.
My body was understandably sore after completing two stages and 40 miles. My knee cooperated again, and two days were in the books. Still, the hardest miles remained.
Sunday – Signal Mountain – 20 miles – 2,696 feet of climbing
The anxiety was palpable in the parking lot as runners picked up their bib numbers, snapped pictures near the starting line and awaited final instructions. Race veterans knew the rugged obstacles that awaited; newbies were eager to scope out some new trail; all hoped to navigate the stage in under the 5-hour time limit and complete the race we began two days earlier.
Adrenaline masked fatigue for the moment, but it didn’t take long for the brutally technical trails of Signal Mountain to delve out punishment.
For me, the pain began a half-mile in. We hadn’t yet hit the first downhill, a 450-foot drop to the bridge across Suck Creek, when the pounding of the first two days caused my knees to scream. The pain was tolerable initially, but it grew steadily worse as the day progressed.
Three miles into the race, after we’d climbed back up 450 feet and were dropping another 400 feet to the Suck Creek Road aid station, I rolled my right ankle hard. Ouch! Moments later, while being overly cautious on the tender ankle, I banged my left shin on a fallen tree. Double-ouch!
This was going to be a long day.
After the early climbs and drops on the out-and-back to Suck Creek Road, the course leveled off in terms of vertical gain. What it lost in terms of elevation gain/loss, it made up for in technicality. Large rocks and drastically uneven footing covered most of the trail that wound along the slopes of Signal Mountain, and thick roots and more rocks covered the shoreline when the trail dipped along Middle Creek.
Among the perks of the first 16 miles was that the aid stations at Edwards Point (mile 9.4) and Signal Point (mile 11.8) were located at ideal vantage points that offered panoramic views of the surrounding forest and river below, so it was even easier to pause at the aid stations, refill water bottles and graze on snacks while soaking in some of Tennessee’s most beautiful scenery.
The greatest challenge to the tricky footing was that the pace was so slow – and Garmins weren’t accurately registering distance – that I became in danger of missing the 5-hour cutoff. I didn’t cover this many miles to miss the cutoff by a few minutes.
Trouble was, there was a half-mile of pavement between the Signal Point aid station and returning to the trail. The pounding from that stretch of asphalt sent my knees’ shrieking to a soprano pitch. I wanted to run and needed to make up some time, but each running step was more excruciating than the last.
I was close to panicking about my pace as my Garmin crept along, taking its sweet time ticking over miles 12 and 13 while I knew I was much farther along the trail. There were 75 minutes until cutoff when my Garmin rolled over 14 miles. I continued to march forward, trusting that the distance was wrong. The final aid station had to be somewhere … had to be close … had to be … THERE! Through the tree cover, I spotted the yellow Smartwool pop-up tent for the aid station at mile 16.4. I refilled the bottles on my Ultimate Direction AK Vest, poured a cup of trail mix down my throat, grabbed a potato in salt, and headed down the trail. We were on a dirt jeep road – something runnable! – and I had 66 minutes to go the final 3.6.
The clock was ticking, but I knew I’d make it.
Each running step felt like a knife twisting into the tops of my kneecaps, so the final miles were a mixture of 30-second runs and minute-long hikes. Smooth and steady. Relentless forward progress. The dirt led to a paved road that we crossed, and that gave way to a gravel path. I could see a high school track through the trees. I crossed another road. My spirit lifted. A mile remained.
Pain be damned, I opened up my stride on a long downhill and rode the momentum part way back up the other side. The trail wound through the trees and across another bridge. I took one last hiking break to give the knees a break so I could run across the finish line. Then I heard a loud whoop echo out behind me. It was Justin. He’d suffered some nasty cramping the day before and then powered through day three. He was running. He was smiling. He gave me a fist bump and hollered out “YEAH KANSAS!” as he ran by.
A few seconds later another runner came along. He’d fought through a broken toe to come this far. It was time to go. He and I trotted together, weaved through the woods and soon saw the sun reflecting off of cars in the parking lot. This was it. He pulled ahead, and I followed about 20 yards behind. Out of the trees, across the street, and onto the grassy home stretch we ran to the finish line.
Volunteers, spectators, and the other runners who’d finished cheered. Laura – who’d had another solid day on the trails of the city where she grew up – greeted me with a big smile. Justin was waiting there, too, ready with a high-five. Luigi had been done for more than an hour, and he came over to offer congratulations. I grabbed my finisher’s jacket.
My time of 4:37:33 was good for 135th out of the 168 finishers, and far behind Riddle, who won again in a course-record time of 2:37:54.
Mary finished a few minutes later, and then the final runners trickled in as the clock counted up to 5:00:00.
We lingered a bit longer in the post-race ice bath, sipping on cold cans of Yuengling, snapping extra photos after dry ice had been tossed into the water, and savoring a few final minutes of what was an extraordinary weekend.
LOOKING BACK; LOOKING FORWARD
I didn’t run my best at Chattanooga, nor did I run as well as I hoped I would given the issues with my knee going into the race. Fortunately, a three-day finishing time of 12:13:53 isn’t how I’ll remember Chattanooga. In fact, time wouldn’t be the way I’d remember it had I run an hour faster – which I think might be realistic if I had a good weekend.
Instead, regardless of time, I’ll remember Chattanooga for being one of my favorite running experiences ever. I got to run some incredible new trails, I got to run in some stunningly gorgeous scenery each day, and I got to spend my time on and off the trails with wonderful, happy, inspiring people who – regardless of if they finished in the top 10 or only managed to finish one day of the stage race – made a positive impact on the weekend.
If I want to run a faster time, I’d better come back next year. If I want to have three more days of fun in the Tennessee dirt, I’d better come back next year. If I want to share the trails again with some of these glorious people, I’d better come back next year.
Chattanooga, I’ll see you again in 2014.