In a little more than two months, I will be leaving for Chile to race the Atacama Crossing with my friend Mike S. In preparation for that, months ago Mike and I targeted a few races along the way that would help to prepare us mentally and physically. Along with the typical marathons, we made a point to look for a longer-distance trail race to get more race-specific experience. That race would turn out to be the Lookout Mountain 50-Miler.
Lookout Mountain is located along the Tennessee-Georgia border, just south of Chattanooga. From atop the mountain you can see 4 states (Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and… Russia?). From the name of the race, you can probably guess that this is a hilly race. The total ascent of the race is approximately 6,500 feet, and it’s all on trails. I’d say about 70% of the trails are single-track, with a small bit that is double-track and wide enough to comfortably fit two people or pass people ahead. Ultra Running Magazine rates it a 4 (of 5) for terrain and a 4 (also of 5) for surface. It’s a fairly tough course, and shouldn’t be attempted by anyone who isn’t a fairly strong-willed runner. This year may have been a 5 for surface, given the rains in the days before.
Going into this race, I didn’t taper at all. I had just spent a full week in Haiti two weeks prior, and that severely limited my ability to train (due to the fact that it’s just too damn dangerous to run in Haiti). When I got back to New York, I immediately started putting in 10+ miles every day, and I had hit 51 miles in the days leading up to Lookout. I gave myself 2 days off so that my legs wouldn’t be too tired, but otherwise I just jumped straight into this thing without any taper. Strangely, I wasn’t worried at all.
Perhaps because I wasn’t racing Lookout, I was very at ease in the weeks and days leading up to the race. This, despite the fact that I had never run a distance longer than a marathon and I had only done a handful of relatively easy trail races in the past. Somehow I was heading into an unfamiliar distance on unfamiliar surfaces, and I knew that I would be just fine.
Mike and I made a very early decision to run together the entirety of the race. If we’re going to be stuck with each other for the 7 days and 160 miles of the Atacama Crossing, then we’d better see if we can tolerate each other during a long day. We’ve run over a thousand miles together, but never quite under these circumstances.
Along with Mike, I headed down to Chattanooga with 3 other friends : Dave L, Daniel G., and Jonathan W. This would be Dave’s first ultra distance, and while has has done many marathons he was a little concerned about running 50 miles so had made a decision to run with Daniel. Daniel is a Marathon Maniac who has completed 50-milers and 50Ks before, and I knew that his consistency in pacing long distance events would be a good way to help Dave L. get through the race without starting out too fast. Jonathan is a very strong and talented runner, having taken 11th place at this race last year. He used to live in Chattanooga and has a family home in Georgia just 10 miles south of the TN-GA border.
The race started without much of a bang. At 7:30am the top of the mountain was cold and misty and the sun hadn’t quite poked through the clouds to warm anyone up. With reluctance, people left the warmth of the outdoor fire pit and headed to the start chute with only few minutes to spare before the gun went off. And when that gun went off, it was a much different experience than I’m used to. Instead of being at the front of the pack and starting a race at sub-6 pace, everyone started of at ….maybe 8:00 pace at most.
Obviously in a 50 mile race there is no need to sprint out the start. The single-track trails wouldn’t start for another mile or so and without a frenzied dash for position, people naturally sort of got into the order and pace that they would keep for the opening miles.
My plan was to take my pace (effort) easy the first marathon’s worth of miles, then put a little more effort into the the next 10, and grind out the last 15 or so miles. I knew that the last 15 was where the race started, much in the same way that the last 10K will make or break a marathon.
Those opening miles were clearly the easiest and the most pretty. Starting at the top of the mountain, a lot of them (1-8) were downhill and gave us an spectacular view of what was below. There were dramatic cliff sides that we ran along, and we were able to soak in the clear skies that opened up over Tennessee to the north and Georgia to the east.
Mike and I started out right on track to take it easy. We were averaging just over 10:00 pace for the first 8 miles, which included quite a bit of single-track trail before getting much wider at the mile 8 aid station. We kept the pace conservative, and I used the easy pace as a good opportunity to get used to the trails while I still had mental energy. 99.99% of my running is done on roads, so there was a little bit of learning to do on these trails; rocks underfoot, leaves obscuring various twigs, uneven terrain, etc.
Following the first aid station, the next several miles were mostly on very forgiving double-track trails that were wide, flat, and easy to run on. On this surface we’d end up averaging 8:30s and it felt ok to pick up the pace a little bit. A little voice was nagging me to not go wild on anything, so I resisted the temptation to dip below 8:00 pace. This wasn’t the time to do anything stupid. If anything, it was time to listen to people who knew what they were talking about. There were two men who seemed to know each other and were running with Mike and me. One of them had run Lookout before, so we picked his brain for suggestions on what parts to take easy and what parts we could make up time on. I kept my mouth shut and my ears open.
Around mile 12 we got our first taste of the creek crossings to come: a 50 meter, near-waist-high trudge through freezing cold water. What would have normally been a mildly ankle-deep creek was now a full river thanks to 48 hours of rain in the days preceding the race. There was no choice but to go through (DQ for those who tried to go around), so we got wet, tried to stay upright, and made it through. Our shoes were soaked, our legs were cold, but at least that would be the worst of it.
I couldn’t bitch too much just yet, because over the next three miles there would be a 1500’ climb. We recorded some molasses-slow times on some of those uphills: 14:23, 13:29… times that I didn’t even think existed in a running race. But I swear I just couldn’t go any faster. A lot of the severe uphills we walked, and probably couldn’t have been going faster than 25:00 pace.
The one thing to look forward to was that at the top of the hill was our first real chance to get real food. Beginning with the mile 22 aid station, all future aid stations along the course would have “drop bags” ready for us. These were bags prepared by us that the race would bring out to pre-determined mile stations (22, 28, 34, 38.5, 44.5) that we could load up with any specific needs. For Mike and I, it mostly meant junk food (sugary candy, salt and vinegar chips) and – very importantly – dry socks. All those creek crossings would surely give me blisters, so I made sure to include three extra pairs of dry socks that I could change into during the race. Even a small blister can become a large problem, and I wasn’t about to DNF because of wet socks.
Our friend Jonathan’s father, Bill, was there waiting for us, and thankfully at mile 22 we were still in great spirits. Our legs felt fine, our minds were good, and there was no sign of slowing down. We asked how Jonathan was doing, and he said he was 10 minutes in front of us. I kept this in mind and we took off.
The next aid station would be at mile 28 with another drop bag, and the route there was pretty simple. Best of all it was mostly downhill, and despite some technical trails we were able to pick up the pace and bit and make up some time that we lost on the massive uphill miles from 18-22. After the Mile 28 aid station at Lula Lake, we passed a gorgeous waterfall that made me appreciate the beauty of the course. I hadn’t expected anything so massive, and running by the roar of the water made me realize just how much nature there was to experience on this mountain.
Miles 28 through 34 were fairly uneventful on the course. We did notice at some point that we were starting to pass a lot of people. Our conservative start looked to be paying off, as we starting chipping away and moving our position up with every mile.
At the aid station at mile 34, Jonathan’s father Bill was again there to cheer us on. He explained that the next 4.5 miles were simply a large loop on the course that would bring us right back to where we were now. He asked if I would like him to have some hot soup ready. I said, “sure,” and started the 4.5 mile loop with Mike. I had no idea how happy I would be that I had said yes!
To give you an idea of what this course was now doing to people, this 4.5 mile loop took Mike and I over an hour, and we probably passed at least a half dozen runners who were now walkers. Many of them would end up not even walking when they finished the loop, at mile 38.5, as many competitors would drop out of the race at this spot.
During this loop we ended up running a bit with the first place female, Debbie Livingston. She was a pretty good runner, and we ended up swapping places a few times. She’d be good on the downhills but she’d really slow down on the flats and uphills. My strong point is certainly not going uphill (never will be), but even she couldn’t keep up with me on the ups.
She ended up finishing 15 minutes ahead of us, but where she passed us was not on the trail itself, but at the aid station. She was in and out in maybe two minutes tops. While Mike and I were busy changing socks, getting hydrated, and slamming down that awesome cup of ramen that Bill had ready for me, she was already on her merry way toward the next aid station. She didn’t miss a beat. I can only imagine she did this at the next aid station to further the gap between us even more. I guess that sort of ability to run through the aid station comes with experience, and it’s something that I’ll be looking to do next year to save up to 15 minutes overall.
At the mile 38.5 station, I had my first taste of the hot ramen with broth that Bill gave me. I’ve often thought that the quality of taste is not so much a function of the food as it is the appetite : and boy did I have an appetite! The cup of ramen was warm, salty goodness down my throat (please, no semen swallowing jokes; it’s just too obvious) and I couldn’t wait to get more at the next station. While I was busy with my ramen, Mike was changing his socks and his feet were shaking uncontrollably. Shit. He had to keep moving or something would cramp and that would be the end of things for him. To be honest, I wanted to dilly-dally a bit and rest, but he had to get moving… so onward we went with only 12 miles to go.
We made a deal that I would take the next 6 miles, and he would take the last 6 miles. I knew this wouldn’t be realistic, and I was right. We ended up swapping the lead every mile or so. At this point it was a lot to expect someone to take the lead for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time.
We were now on the “back” part of an out-and-back course, and we were heading home going against traffic that was still going out. We got a lot of words of encouragement from the runners that were heading to mile 34, and I appreciated the camaraderie that develops among runners so far out on the trail.
Sooner than I had anticipated, we turned a corner and I heard the rush of water at Lula Lake. I couldn’t believe it – we were at mile 44.5, the last aid station! With a very quick stop (more hot ramen!), we were on our way and had only 5.5 miles to go before we were finished. This was when I finally started to taste the finish line. Having been on the course for 8+ hours, never had I thought about the finish – it was always just so far away. But finally it was within sight.
I knew the last 5.5 miles would take long. How could it not? It was uphill and we were tired. I was so tired that at one point I thought it was only 4.5 miles to the finish, and I kept doing estimated finish calculations based on this bogus number. It wasn’t for a while until I realized I had one more mile that I hadn’t counted on, and that almost broke my fragile, tired mind. But I’ve done enough distance races and ultra relays that I knew I could tough out an extra mile. And I wasn’t about to bitch, because that wasn’t going to help anyone.
I kept my head down, ran everything that wasn’t uphill, kept my mouth shut, and after an hour soon we saw the top of that damn mountain. With a chain-link fence signaling to us that we were back at the start (that also served as the finish), Mike and I picked up the pace. We turned a few corners and could see the huge “FINISH” setup and we booked it. We were flying, and before I knew it we had crossed the line in 9:32:25.
I have never been so overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment; I immediately turned to Mike and we gave each other a big hug with ridiculous grins on both our faces. We had finished! And we did it without injury, without drama, without bickering, without ever doubting that we could finish this thing together. We ran a smart race, we ran a consistent race, and we finished in the top 30. I was on top of the world (or a mountain, at least).
Jonathan had come in a half hour ahead of us, and he and his family were there to cheer us on at the finish. We all had a chance to catch up and briefly reflect on the race, but Jonathan was in dire need of rest and a shower. He was looking pretty shaky and we advised him to get home ASAP to recover. Meanwhile Mike and I waited for Dave and Daniel to finish. An hour went by, and I started to get a little concerned that maybe Dave was under prepared for this race. I knew he had his phone on him, and I was relieved that I didn’t have any missed calls or messages from him saying that he had dropped out. Literally at the 11th hour their head lamps appeared in the distance of the night. With a time of 11:11, they crossed the line together and they were done.
A huge sense of pride came over me, so happy that the 5 of us had completed this race. With an attrition rate of 38% (250 registrants, only 156 finishers), a lot of people dropped out, got swept up by the 14-hour time limit, or just didn’t even show up.
This race gave me a lot of the confidence that I needed to continue training for Atacama. With a little more than two months to go, I will need to really bear down and put in both quality and quantity of miles. With this under my belt it will allow me to focus on those miles without worrying about the race. I’ve just signed up for the Miami Marathon in January, which will be run with a 10 or 15 pound backpack. Lookout may have ended, but the training must go on.