Day 1: Ermegerd wer in Cherternurba
Maps all c/o Wild Trails
The Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race is the Rad-ville extreme, the most excellent bomb-ass race-hangout event of the year. This is my favorite race, and there are numerous incredible trail races in the southeast. Put on by the Wild Trails non-profit, both Randy and Kris Whorton are the two main folks who make this race possible, along with so many superb volunteers. And beer. Chattanooga Brewing Company provides bunches of beer for racers and their friends for the weekend. Huzzah!
My buddy Mike and I drove up Friday morning for the first race on Raccoon Mountain. We were surprised when our friend Jordan Robert (He’s French, ladies) met us at the start. Mike and I had met him at a group run in Atlanta, told him about the race, and he signed up without our knowing. So, after a proper and balanced amount of ass smacking, the three of us trotted to the start line. I spied Liz Canty, so we had plenty of strong runners on the trail this weekend.
Any runner wanting to run competitively needed to sprint up front before the route narrowed, bottle-necking runners every morning. With this in mind, Mike and I wiggled our way to the front pack, and after the countdown, we sped off. From the start we ran with those fast, fast folks in top 5.
Misty wet trails Friday morning at Raccoon Mountain
In my mind, I was constantly analyzing my running efforts against how much I wanted to reserve for the remaining two days of racing. Many people allow themselves to get excited and blow out the first day. For these folks, the next two days could become grueling, if not impossible. I might have done this dance last year. I had a great, slow time.
Raccoon Mountain is fairly large, with lovely single-track that’s not exactly smooth. Jagged rocks embedded deely into the earth. A toe stubbing against these stones would crush like a Fisher-Price accordion between the arms of Hafþór Björnsson. Having rained the night before, we ran lightly over wet rock. The best section of trail occurred when we left the woods, emerging onto a gravel road with a slight descent. Our little pack of runners sped up to 6:30 min/mile, talked a little in the pleasant moment. I first met Franklin Baker here, but I had no idea who he was. He struck up conversation as if we were sitting down for coffee. I was working pretty hard, but I didn’t want to show it. I’m sure this resulted in a sour, grumpy faced me. It became obvious he was a quick dude.
The course dove back into the woods, trails weaving zig-zag like overlapping figure eights. Runners zoomed past one another at points, front runners breezing past middle-packers, shoulders nearly touching because the trails came so close before veering away. It was rather humorous, yet unnerving for anyone trying to maintain place. In here, Franklin and the other runner pulled away from Mike and me, leaving us in 4th and 5th. With 2 days left, and us already running strong, we maintained our pace and let them go.
Just before the finish, runners run near the wall of rocks that is the dam. It’s a quick diversion before diving back into the woods. From here, we ran another 2-ish miles of trail before suddenly finding Randy Whorton standing on the paved path leading to the start/finish. With only 100 meters or so of this, everyone sprints in. Hundreds of bubbles created the finish line, blown into the air by little toy frogs and flower things.
Mike and I hopping across rocks by the Raccoon Mountain Dam
Day 2: Go Tell Aunt Rhody the Old Grey Goose is Risen From the Dead Feasting on Blood of the Innocent!
Ten minutes before the start, we arrived at Lula Lake Land Trust on Lookout Mountain. Time for quick bathroom break, apply some sunscreen, and get on the line. I took off my shirt and slipped on two handheld bottles. Mike and I settled into the front pack, getting some tight-spaced stretches in moments before the go.
“Hey,” said a guy next to us, “are you guys gonna go out too fast again?” I turned to looked at the speaking dingus. It was one of the guys who had passed Mike and myself a few miles before the finish the day before. I tilted my head and replied, “Well, who knows what we’re gonna do, man. Just out here to run.” I couldn’t decide if his question echoed from a deep, isolated pit of robo-human curiosity, or vainglorious ribbing. And Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race, a weekend celebrating dirty trails and dirtier trail runners, is not the place for pointless, petty ribbing. Thankfully, the countdown got started.
We took off, again with Mike and myself in the front runners. The course began on downhill gravel for a mile. And we ran fast. Our front crew consisted of the same folks from yesterday, with 1st and 2nd place men battling from the start and zipping away. Mike and I settled in with Franklin, and we all veered right into a steep climb up to the Lookout Mountain overlook. I stumbled over some high steps with my hands wrapped up in bottles. Once up top, we’d lost sight of 1st and 2nd. To our left, the overlook opened up a grand view of trees and mountains for miles. Yet another awe-inspiring sight that we had to appreciate on the go. Something to come back to.
Franklin had paced Mike and me all day yesterday before pulling away strong in the last few miles, so I decided if I were going to have a chance pushing him, it’d be now. I did not totally count on beating him, but if I could just push him into some discomfort, even just for a little while, that might be nice. Such is my hubris.
Getting out of the steep climb to Lookout Mountain’s Overlook
We bombed downhill, scurrying down a long loop back to the start. A creek tumbled beside the trail before we turned left toward the start/finish. Hurrying across a wooden bridge, none of us stopped at the aid station but trudged uphill past the parked cars. Then began a long, sweaty climb.
The ongoing theme with the Lookout Mountain course: when you aren’t bombing downhill, you’re marching the hell uphill. Except Franklin, Mike and I weren’t marching, we maintained a respectable trot. Around mile 6, Mike had fallen back, and Franklin and I kept stomping forward. Every now and then we’d talk a bit, but it was hard for me. I had no idea if this higher speed was sustainable for me, I just knew if I slowed down at all Franklin would surge away. When we didn’t have a “rolling hills” section, we climbed. Eventually the trails opened to glorious, huge power-line hills. With no tree coverage, we baked under the open sun among the dry weeds and clay roads. Our legs dragged through grabby plants and briars. Spectators and volunteers cheered from the top, wanting us to know that we were “almost there.” Once we did make it, we schlumped over to the water coolers and filled our water bottles through a haze. And I ate a pickle.
In less than a minute, we were back on the trail. Only a few steps away from the aid station, Franklin said something cheery like, “Boy it is hot out here!” or “Those were some nasty hills, eh?” I didn’t hear it so well. We were running up an easy service road, but I started to sag significantly. Franklin began to outpace me. I tried to turn it up, but felt the ghostly hands of fatigue tugging me back. Specifically at my hamstrings.
Every now and then I’d take heart, spotting Franklin ahead. I was still pushing hard, but my legs began to wobble on downhills. My head started to swim, and my arms became heavy. I ate one of my two gels, but after five minutes I ate the second. It was too late for me not to feel like crap, but hopefully I’d get a second wind soon enough to keep going. The course finally turned onto trails we’d run before, so I knew we were headed back. But it felt much, much longer this time, even going downhill. I was getting tired.
See, I didn’t eat breakfast. I kinda did, a slice of bread with a light smear of peanut butter on it. I wanted to run light. Turns out I was running light, alright. Light on fuel.
I wobbled into the start/finish area, crossing it for the final aid station. I let volunteers pour freezing water over my head while I refilled my bottles. I barely reacted, I was burning up. Overheating. I saw my friend Maddie, she came up and said, “you’re doing great!” I nodded and gave the weakest thumbs up of my life. I turned to climb the bridge I’d crossed at the beginning of the race, going the opposite direction, now, when I heard runners approaching from behind. My morale tumbled from its crumbling precipice as I tried to turn on the jets. I vaulted over the bridge, tucked and weaved through the wiggling path next to the creek, and turned upward, to begin the climb to the overlook. And then my legs straight up died. Just dead.
I had never felt my hamstrings give out like this before. It felt as if I had gotten into an arm wrestling match with, here he comes again, Hafþór Björnsson. Except my hamstring was my arm, and the mountain is…THE Freaking Mountain! I got pulverized.
A hot flush of the remaining strength in my legs fell out and I could not run uphill anymore. Odd as that sounds, somewhere between my mind and my body, I could not run uphill anymore. Stuck in first gear, I started my best power-hike up this hill. One of the guys behind me passed. He was followed quickly by two more. I watched them go by, going from 4th to 5th, then 7th, 8th, and finally 9th place. Damn.
I could not wait to get to the top of this stupid hill, which seemed much longer than before. My head swam heavily, and I resisted a powerful desire to face-plant into the leaves lining the trail and fall asleep. My handbottles had been sufficient throughout the race, but now, moving slower, I hoped I’d have enough water to keep muscle cramps and dehydration at bay. Probably a too late for dehydration.
Finally, I reached a turn off of the hill, and a slight incline ran up to the overlook. I found it runnable, got in motion and kept it going past the overlook and bombed down the incline we’d climbed at the beginning of the race. At a couple of points I was able to slide on my butt, which was fun. I started to feel more confident, strength returning. At the bottom, the trail crossed the gravel road from the start and descended into a pointy, rocky mess of a trail. There’s nowhere to go but down the rocky mess, somehow a path had been formed. The flags helped me see where to go, which lead to the beautiful lower falls of Lula Lake Land Trust. A photographer sat there and snapped the goofy faces of runners’ mixed pain and awe.
Climbing up from the Falls at Lula Lake Land Trust
And then there were the giant stairs.
Climbing up from the waterfall were enormously huge stairs, big enough I placed my hands on the next step to hop up. It didn’t take long for the lungs to burn, and a fiery fatigue to set into the legs once again. But this time, the climb was shorter, and I kicked into a trot right from the top. Flagging dipped to the left, leading to a rolling section of trail beside the creek. I knew this was close to the end. I ran as hard as I could, which was sloppy and slow. The trail opened to a creek crossing. This year I stomped through no problem without an audience. Last year I had slipped and splashed face first into the creek, getting hooting laughs from two old guys hanging out by the waterside. Once on the other side, I climbed the bank to the gravel road and busted out what speed I had left. I could hear the finish. My jaw was slack and I was breathing hard. A family sitting on the side of the road told me, “Good job!” I tried to say thanks, but all that came out were breathy growls. When I saw the finish line, I barreled through looking terrible and pathetic. Franklin was there. He said, “Dude! There you are!” and something other things. I kind of returned his high five, walked a few feet away from the finishing line, and collapsed onto the ground.
Laying on my back. Maddie came over asking if I was okay. All I wanted was to be still and breathe, for my head to stop spinning, and maybe sleep. She asked another time or two, left, and came back with an icy-wet washcloth. She laid that over my face and poured water on me. It felt really, really good, but I was surprised (in my mind) that I didn’t twitch or react at all. I may have touched her arm to let her know I heard her, and to say thanks. We sat there for a minute.
Another runner was coming through the finish line. The announcer said, “Liz Canty!” And that was what I needed to move again. Liz Canty is a wildly strong runner, and I’ve been lucky to get to know her and her husband Luke Hough, who’s quite the powerful runner, too, over the past few months. After her name was called, I lifted my arms, cupped my hands and yelled, “Yeah Liz!” My voice was probably way to small to be heard, but I just felt like shouting for my friend.
Day 3: Come With Me, and You’ll Be, on a Trail of Pure BlahBlahBluhmation
Signal Mountain. The big finale of the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race.
Runners drive to a high school outside of Chattanooga, and the starting line is tucked way back by soccer and baseball fields. Mike, Maddie and I arrived a few minutes earlier this morning, and actually had breakfast. We felt clearer about the day, less stressed, and ready to just enjoy it. At the starting line, we didn’t go up front but started from the back. After the countdown of 3-2-1, we took a photo and then ran after the pack. Jordan decided not to race today, so he was gonna come to the finish later with a few more of our pals who’d come into town. We found out later they’d all spent the previous night dancing away.
Once underway, Mike and I stuck together throughout most of the first out and back. We ran beside a bunch of people we had hung out with after each of the races, but had never run with on trails. It was excellent, and felt great to laugh with people for the first few miles. I figured I might turn it up later, but for now, I tried to enjoy the company.
Runners cross an extremely wobbly bridge before a climb up switch backs, arching over a hill and descending to the first aid station at the bottom. Folks get their water, turn around and head back the way they came. Before I got back to the swingy bridge, I’d just gotten ahead of some raucous runners laughing about as hard as they were running, which was pretty admirable. I was starting to feel the speed, so I zipped down to the bridge and sprinted across alone. Much easier to do than crossing with fifteen people wobbling the thing every-which-way. Ahead of the main pack, I climbed alone to the Mushroom Rock. Volunteers were there to direct us onward, and I dipped into the foliage-dense tunnels of trails leading to Signal Point.
That fun rickety bridge on the first out and back
This whole section was rolling trail that would dip into rocky beds, then thrust upward over boulders. I began catching people. At the next aid station, I saw Maddie, and she was beaming ear to ear. She’d run from Signal Point, past Edwards Point to this aid station, and looked to be enjoying herself. “Good luck!” she shouted!
The rock garden is a lovely, intense, and rugged section of steep descents and climbs, all while jumping over jagged, shifty, break-your-ankles-for-laughs rocks. What got me was vaulting. On one attempt to hoist myself up and over a large rock, I knocked the crap out of my right knee. I’d placed my bottle-carrying hands onto the flat top of the rock (about 4 feet up or so) when I swung my right leg out to ascend. There, it caught a flat overhanging chunkI. I slammed my knee into the rock and howled, “GYYYYAHHHHH!!!” I rolled over into a sit, and the other guys kept moving (totally legit, I made a mistake, but I was clearly fine) and asked if I was OK. I stood up and started a limping run. After a minute or two, I could put some real weight down on the leg. Looking down, blood had started to run from the spot of impact. Honestly, it was about damn time for some blood. This is trail running, anyway.
We weren’t done with the rock garden. I was careful with my knee on descents, but sometimes I just had to jump on it. It started hurting less and less. I was able to pick up speed. The trail started leveling out. I passed to the front of the pack of guys and started pulling away. Which kinda sucked, because they were having a great, laughing time running strong.
Beyond the rock garden, I ran into more foliage-thick trail weaving away. Secluded by the walls of rocks and trees, a small bit of wind eased away some of the sun’s heat, moving gently through the leaves around me. My feet padded over fine and well tread dirt and the occasional stone, making for a soft, internal metronome. Perhaps this is the moment people talk about when I ask if they would like to go for a run. “Don’t you get bored?” they ask, or “There’s nothing else to do!” With nothing else to do, I listened. I allowed my brain to take a back seat, observing the colors around me, the blue sky, green and brown plants. Listening to my breath made for another pattern series of movement and sound. I didn’t have to think. I only saw and appreciated where I was. And I drank up the peace of that moment. Which, maybe it is the peace that discomforts people.
Stellar view from Edwards Point
I began to find people on the trail again. First, I found Liz Canty. We cruised together up to Edwards Point, the most breathtaking view of the entire weekend. We both said, “Whoaaaa,” looking out over the Tennessee River, watching it snake through the gorge. We kept moving, catching up to another guy just as we started a climb with more enormous stairs.
Photos of the climb up to Signal Point from Edwards Point via Rootsrated.com
Near the top, we could hear people cheering. We emerged to the Signal Point overlook. People walked about the grassy space which stretched down from the parking lot, where our aid station lay. I remember it was just enough uphill (after the big ol’ stairs) to look make us look/feel pitiful. Liz’s husband, Luke, stood beside the aid station cheering for us. We said hey and I moped into the station, refilled water, and headed out. Liz was right behind me grabbing more ice and fluids. The next stretch of the course went up paved road for about half a mile before reaching trail again.
Two friggin’ champions chugging up a hill c/o Luke Hough.
Liz is shy
After running by houses and a little church, the course veered back onto trail. Rolling hill lead down to a creek which became a constant barrier. I got to enjoy smooth, friendly single-track for maybe half a mile before it changed back to jagged piles of rock. It was here that Liz caught up. She came blasting out of the trail behind me. We began hopping along the “trail”, which consisted of yellow flags rammed between mossy, shifty rocks beside a big creek. We talked, mostly about how these rocks were going to either break our ankles or get us lost. My head was on a constant swivel looking for the marked course. Everything looked a muted green and grey and brown, yet wet and shiny where the sun shimmered through the trees. Finding the next flagging always felt like a discovering an important clue. One of us would say, “There!” and continue wriggling over.
At some point, another dude joined up with us. I moved up front and happened to get first feet on some smoother trail. Kicking up the speed, I got a groove going. I heard Liz and the other guy behind me and we started cruising to the last aid station. I don’t look behind me unless the trail bends in favor of it, not wanting to fall and all, so it was a while further that I got a glimpse back on a turn and saw that Liz had dropped off. I’m glad the guy near me didn’t look up, because confusion would have been all over my tilted face as I looked down at him. I turned and carried on.
I’m a dope, a schmuck, a harebrained weirdo and I want to run with my friends to the finish. But I’m not entirely silly. We’re all out here busting our guts for for a good time (If I haven’t mentioned it, Chatt Stage Race is hella dope good times). So me and everybody else just kept runnin’.
At the last aid station, Krist Whorton was there, Luke Hough, and several volunteers. I went through the dance of bottle filling and dousing my head and neck with a freezing wet washcloth. Two other guys flitted about the aid station with me. A replay of last year’s final push, a quick 5k to the finish. But this time, I knew there was just one big climb right off and then blazing fast trail all the way in.
Last Aid Station @ Signal Mountain c/o Luke Hough
I ran out, and the other two were right with me. I held ground for maybe a quarter of a mile before I was overtaken by a bald-ish fella with a bristly close beard. He was laying it out fast, and I didn’t want to gamble my strength just yet, so I let him go. When we hit the big hill, the three of us were within sight of one another. I pushed away from one, but the bald-ish guy kept going strong. I had to wonder if I’d see him before the finish.
Clear of the hill, the dirt road I ran wove into single-track, crossed a road or two, and threw me against the perimeter of the high school. Here, I knew, was the time to fly. In memory, I was ridiculously close. But my mind tends to shorten the trail. I was heaving and zooming along, which means I just looked like a muppet swinging back and forth from one side of the screen to the other. When I did see the switchbacks that led right up to the finish line, I hauled to the top. After I turned onto the paved road leading to the finish, I knew I wasn’t gonna catch that bald-ish dude, after all. Good on him. I zipped on through the finish, high-fived friends and settled in to cheer the other runners. I talked with Franklin (who got freaking 3rd overall!) and met his wife Jenny, and then learned they are the race directors for the Georgia Jewel in September (I’m running the 50 miler). They are infinitely fun and friendly people, and I’m happy to have run with Franklin out on these trails.
After everyone had finished, we celebrated with some very Wild Trails festivities, unique to the Chattanooga Mountains Stage race that I won’t bother going into further. Next year, Randy Whorton plans to start a 7-day stage race, carrying on from the three original days. My busted up legs coulda done some more, so I’m looking forward to a whole week of amazing trails next year around the Chattanooga mountains.