2013 Lookout Mountain 50 Mile Trail Race

Overall Time: 8:58:24
Pace: 10:46 min/mile
Place: 21st of 201 finishers (400 registered)
AG% : N/A

Weather: 35, rainy, windy, muddy, overcast, miserable, pneumonia-inducing
Start Time: 7:30am

It’s a little odd but the Lookout Mountain 50 Mile trail race is now the first race that I’ve done three times. It’s not odd to do a race three times. But it’s odd that of all the races I’ve done and all the distances — 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, etc. — it’s this particular 50 miler that I come back to every year. It’s over a thousand miles away, it’s up and over a damn mountain, and it’s 50 miles — it’s not just something you wake up and do on a Saturday.

Why do I come back to this race? I think it’s very simple that it was my first ultramarathon. It is when I started to explore and define my niche as a runner back in 2011. Was I a road runner? A distance runner? A trail runner? … Or perhaps a bit of everything?

Understandably I came into this race with some good expectations. Last year I had a good race, and after a 2013 of PRs in distances from the 5K to the 50 mile I was definitely feeling good about giving 2013 Lookout a hard effort and breaking my course PR from last year (8:35).

Then the weather happened.

Quite simply, the biggest obstacle for me and others in this race was the weather. The race started off in semi-darkness as the sun struggled to rise from the east and cut through the heavy layer of mist that had settled on the mountain. With temperatures just a few degrees above freezing and a steady stream of rain coming from the skies (with no foreseeable end in sight), everyone had to find a little extra motivation to get into the wet and muddy start chute.

At the crack of the sun at 7:30am, the race began and did so with the familiar sprint-out-too-fast feeling that all races (even 50 milers) are known for. I counted around 50 people who had gone off ahead of me in the first mile and this felt about right. I figured that I would catch up with most of them on the long 2000′ ascent from mile 14 – 22, and then another dozen or so in the second half of the race. I always adopt a fairly conservative start during 50 milers and it’s always seemed to work well. It really helps prevents blowing up in the end and the mental boost of passing people in the latter miles of the race helps translate into a physical boost.

A wet, damp, misty morning race start atop the mountain.
A wet, damp, misty morning race start atop the mountain.

I fell into just the right train of people when we hit the single-track around the second mile. It was so well-paced that everyone kept the same speed and there was no passing until the first aid station at mile 6. From there the trails opened up a bit and we more or less all kept our positions heading to the Nature Center aid station at mile 14.8. This section is the most runnable of the course, but the rain had made the conditions slippery and muddy. Rocks became a great opportunity to lose traction, and anything with wet leaves was always a bit of a gamble. The mud wasn’t too bad here and thankfully this year there weren’t any thigh-deep water crossings, but looking at my watch just past the 1-hour mark it didn’t appear that the rain would be letting up anytime soon.

While the rain continued for quite a while, at least it was warming up a bit. Being wet is one thing, but cold and wet is quite another. Once the sun managed to come overhead a bit things warmed up and the rain was a lot easier to deal with. It was still misty, but at least it wasn’t freezing.

Making it to the aid station at 14.8, I noticed a few people already falling back¬† a lot (near-walk speed). Clearly a lot of people had gone out too fast, and I felt bad knowing that some of these people had blown their race in the first 14 miles.¬† The first 14 miles are all net downhill, and following that is a big climb (2000′) back to the top of the mountain. If so many were hurting on the easy opening miles, I knew there would be carnage at the top of the mountain and a lot of DNFs. I had little sympathy for these foolhardy runners, and didn’t skip a stride passing them.

Just as last year, I felt pretty good on the long ascent back to the top. I have a fairly good uphill technique and intuit fairly well when I’m pushing too hard and need to back off. It was on this ascent alone that I passed 14 people. One of them was a friend’s father who I had passed at almost the exact same spot in 2012. It’s funny how things repeat themselves.

The ascent itself is long but never unmanageable. I always feel comfortable on it because after every steep, intense uphill it will level off a bit and allow you to catch your breath. It’s never as daunting as it looks in elevation profiles. Before I knew it I had reached the top, and was coming back across the start / finish line to head to the southern end of the race — a 28-mile out-and-back section with some pretty fun sections to keep things interesting.

It was good to be at the top, and even better it had stop raining. We had all spent almost 4 hours in the rain and it may have been a little too unbearable for many to complete the entire race soaked from head to toe.

Beginning this second half, I quickly found myself on a trail section that runs along some power lines. This trail has clay dirt trails, which when mixed with water just becomes HELL ON EARTH. The rain had stopped but the clay was saturated, making it slippery one second and then threatened to suck your shoe off your foot. Somehow my shoes stayed attached to my feet, and I made a mental note that when I was returning in the final miles through this section I couldn’t bitch about it because it would only be 2 miles from the finish at that point.

I continued along the trail making my way to the Lula Lake aid station at mile 29.9. This is always one of my favorite parts of the course and I’m not really sure why. It’s pretty, but then so again is the rest of the course. It’s downhill, but half this race is downhill. There’s just something about it that makes it very pleasant — it’s far along in the race that I’m never really running with anyone, so it’s quiet and calm. I feel alone, and not in a bad way. Yet it’s also early enough in the race that my legs aren’t yelling at me and I still have enough energy to look around and enjoy being in the wilderness. I’m not yet yelling, “GET ME THE FUCK OFF THIS MOUNTAIN!” It may have something more to do with my mental state in the middle of a 50-mile race. The first half of warming up is done, and I get into a good zone while still quite energetic. It makes the middle miles (25 – 40) all the more enjoyable.

It’s also something about the sound of hearing the water feeding into Lula Lake / Lula Falls. With all the overnight and morning rain, the falls were extra active and I made it a point to stop dead in my tracks and soak it all in. Having been in New York City for almost 8 years now, I need to do this once in a while.

I made a mental note there that I had spent 4:45 on the course so far. Last year I had taken exactly 4:30, so I was 15 minutes slower this year through the first 30 miles. Given the conditions, I figured this to be just about right and continued on. I knew I wouldn’t be going under last year’s time of 8:35, but I wanted to make it under 9:00 and knew it was going to be a fight until the very end.

I just ripped this picture off the internet, but you can see Lula Falls in the background. This year the falls were extra active from the rains.
I just ripped this picture off the internet from a previous year’s race, but you can see Lula Falls in the background. This year the falls were extra active from the rains. That is not me in the picture.

Passing through Lula Lake I was looking forward to the Long Branch aid station at mile 34. For me that’s when the race finish starts to materialize mentally. At mile 34 there is a 4.5-mile loop that you do before then heading back to the finish along the same trails that span from mile 22 – 34.

There are a few bonuses to this setup. Firstly, miles 38.5 – 50 are the same as 22 – 34, but just in reverse. You head back to the finish on the same trails but reverse direction. This means the route is fairly familiar. It also means that if you’re near the front, you are heading “back” as lots of others are heading “out.” The runners are typically very encouraging and cheer you on, so it’s a good boost of energy. Secondly, I can always start to taste the finish line when I’m physically running toward it. At the end of the ascent back up the mountain at mile 22, you pass through the start / finish chute to do an out-and-back section on the southern part of the course. Obviously as you begin this section you pass through the start / finish line and are heading away from it. It’s not until another 15 miles that you reverse directions and start heading back. There’s something very simple about the act of running back — actually physically making yourself close to the finish line — that really excites me even if I had several hours of running ahead of it. It keeps my spirits high and my legs moving.

Thus when I reached mile 34 and did the 4.5-mile loop before heading back to the finish, I felt fantastic. The race was entering its final miles. A lot of people stop at the Long Branch aid station (miles 34, and 38.5) because it offers a much larger assortment of food and beverages. It’s very common for people to load up on potatoes, soup broth, and instant noodles here. I was so motivated to get to the finish that I just went through only taking the time to say hello to a few friends. One of them told me that I was in front of her brother, Jonathan W., which came as a surprise to me. He’s a fast guy and I had figured he was way up ahead of me. I was wrong! I couldn’t think much about it so I made my way back to the course. I had a race to finish!

I looked at my Garmin to try and see what possibility I had of finishing under 9 hours today. Unfortunately the GPS signal was inaccurate that day, partly due to the switchbacks in the first half of the race and perhaps also because of the weather. It made it impossible to get an accurate estimation of how many miles were left, and because I knew that my time would be very very close to 9 hours I just couldn’t estimate with any certainty. It was going to be close.

Heading toward the finish with 11 miles to go I saw Markus A. making his way to mile 34 while I was heading back to the finish. I placed him around 75 minutes behind me and was impressed at his time given that it was his first 50 miler.

Before I knew it I had hit mile 40 and saw two more friends, Daniel and Dominic, in the exact same spot that I saw Daniel the previous year. This made me nervous because last year he took 12:41 to finish and this year the race had a cutoff time of 13:00. With the mud at the end of the race, I wasn’t confident that they’d make the finish. I said hello to them and kept on.

A mile later I saw yet another pair of friends, Luc and Mel. I shouted to them, “Ca va!?” but was met with not-so-happy faces. Luc had a foot injury and had been forced to slow down dramatically. Given the injury and the 13-hr cutoff time I knew he wasn’t going to make it. I gave him a look of sympathy but couldn’t stand around just yet. I had to make it to the finish.

Reaching Lula Lake at mile 42.5, I sucked down some warm ramen for whatever extra calories I might need to finish up the last section of the course and continued on without breaking much of a stride. I started thinking about all the carnage on the course — Daniel and Dominic probably not making the cutoff time, Luc’s injured foot, and the absence of seeing my friends Bernie and Cindy on the course — and realized it was a pretty brutal day for a lot of people.

Lula Falls again.
Lula Falls again.

Me, I was feeling fine. I was struggling on some sections and my right ankle was giving me issues, but my legs and head felt fine. Yes the conditions made the course slower than last year — I kept thinking to myself that I had never felt so good yet struggled so much! — but I felt like as long as I kept my head on straight I wouldn’t have any blowups today.

The miles were whittling away and soon there were only 5 miles to go. Then 4, then 3, then 2… then there was the muddy clay trail leading to the finish. It’s not very long, but man does it just stuck all your energy out of you. I walked it. I couldn’t be bothered to run along that torturous stretch of soul (and shoe) sucking filth. When I spied the end of this stretch, I made a hard right to follow a metal fence and thanked heaven and earth that stretch was done with.

I started checking my watch more often to see if I could make it under 9 hours. I had done this a little bit on the course earlier, but things like that are just so hard to predict but now I knew I was within a mile or two of the finish. But was it one mile? Or two? I wasn’t sure. Argh, the uncertainty was killing me. I knew only one thing : whatever the distance, it was short and I had to try and push toward the finish as hard as I could. There weren’t a lot of people around me so motivation was sparse. But all I needed to do was keep my head down for a few minutes and listen for the finish line. Right as I looked at my watch’s overall time hit right around 8:56, I figured my chance at sub-9 had gone out the window.

Then I heard some cowbells. And a loudspeaker. And someone announcing race finishers. The finish line was somewhere just around the corner! I booked it up the incline and saw a volunteer cheering me on. “It’s muddy and slippery, but the finish line is just around the bend!” Holy shit. I looked at my watch: 8:58. Muddy and slipper be damned, I sprinted up the final bend and crossed the line in disbelief that I had pulled off a sub-9 race through shit weather. I closed my eyes and with smiled with relief. I was happy. I hadn’t blown up at the end. I beat my friend Jonathan W., even though he probably doesn’t even care one bit about beating me (or not). I was done.

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