Overall Time: 7:58:59
Overall Place: 11 of 174 (10th male)
Age Group Place: N/A
This was one of my two big fall races of 2015. I’m not sure why, but I wanted to run this race a 4th time and try to crack the top 10. I wanted to try and apply some of the physical and mental toughness that I had acquired since running a time of 8:35 in 2012 (then good for 13th place). While I was incredibly pleased with that race at the time, I knew there was room for improvement.
This race is very familiar to me; it was my first 50-miler in 2011 and I returned again in 2012 and 2013 to test my mettle. It’s the only 50-mile course that I can actually remember in any detail – I can visualize every segment of the race and I feel this gives me an advantage when deciding how hard and when to push the pace. I thought that if everything went right, I could hit a top 10 placement and flirt with finish time below 8:00. To put the finish time in perspective, prior to 2015 there had been only 17 people in 908 finishes – less than 2% — to go under 8 hours since the race started in 2009. I knew it was a bit ambitious, but I didn’t fly a thousand miles for small goals.
Heading to the start, I had no excuses for failure. I was coming off a solid block of fall marathon training (and a new PR of 2:53), I had avoided re-injury, and the race-day weather was looking conducive for fast times.
I traveled to Chattanooga with 4 friends, each with different ultramarathon experience, so I was calm on the morning of the race. The 5 of us chit-chatted in the pre-dawn hour, a welcome distraction until the call to the start line as the sun rose.
Shortly after 7:30 a.m. the race started and I found myself warming up during the opening mile with 30 people ahead of me. I chose my position with the intention of not going out too slowly, for fear of getting stuck behind too many people on the single track trail after the first mile of road. I counted on the majority of those 30 people coming back to me during the second half of the race.
I was settling into a nice rhythm. They’re opening rolling downhills are an easy, gentle way to start off the race. My body (and hands!) were starting to warm up and right when I started to feel relaxed… I fell. Hard. My right shin took the force of the fall and it hurt like a motherfucker but I bounced up without a second thought and kept running. I didn’t want to get trampled nor did I want to lose any time. I feared for a second that something might be broken (or become broken) so I did a quick self-analysis and made a mental note to reassess every few miles once the adrenaline went away.
Pulling into the first aid station at Mile 8, my leg seemed fine at this point (whew) and it was still a bit early for me to be stopping for fluids, so I cruised on by and gained a few spots from those who did. I’d save my first fluid stop for Mile 14 before the big ascent back up the mountain.
The trails widen after the first aid station as the course continues down the side of the mountain, losing 1,000 vertical feet. This was a welcome opportunity to start passing some of those who went out ahead of me at the start, but I knew to save myself for miles 14 to 22 which climb back up the to the top of the mountain (~2000 feet of climbing). Keeping that in mind, I kept my ego in check any time people were around trying to race me (either passing me or speeding up to prevent me from passing them). I just kept to my game plan of easy running the first 14 miles; cutting off a minute or two here could have added a full hour on the back end.
As I hit Mile 14 I started to do what I learned from many better trail runners than I – grind on long uphills. Keep the cadence high, the steps small, and don’t let up for nothing. When you pass, keep going and pretend that you’re just on a Sunday jog. Make it look effortless like you never want to stop. When the slope makes running impossible, power hike as hard as you can. If you’re going to walk up the steep stuff, it doesn’t mean you can let off the gas. It just means you’re walking as hard as you can run. Too many people give up when it gets too steep to run. If you’re going to hike, you might as well hike fast.
And so run-hike I did, as fast as I could. I passed a dozen people and never looked back. OK, maybe I looked back a few times, but each time I couldn’t see anyone so it doesn’t count. I was relentless in my ascent to the top of the mountain, feeding off of passing people who were gasping for air and knowing that there were even more behind me struggling to the top.
When I finally reached the top at Mile 22 I knew that this is where my race would begin. I had a goal of hitting the top in 3 hours and 1 minute; In 2012 I hit the top of the mountain in 3 hours 15 minutes, so I figured that if I was going to finish under 8:00, I wanted to aim for a 3:01. Unfortunately I made it up in 3:13 – more than 10 minutes behind schedule. If I was going to dip under 8 hours, it would all be made up on the second half. I knew that in 2012 the biggest room for improvement lied in my second half, so I wasn’t too worried that sub-8 was out of reach yet.
I kept moving and tried to pay as much attention as possible to the next 7+ miles toward the Lula Lake aid station because they are also the *last* 7+ miles of the race course coming the opposite direction (uphill, unfortunately). I tried to survey the slope of the mountain, look at the terrain, and figure out how fast I would be able to run up it and how to take that into account for my goal of under 8 hours. Looking at every detail, it was trickier than I had remembered and I knew that I’d have to really push against gravity the final few miles.
The aid station at Mile 30 is at Lula Falls, which is probably the single coolest part of the course. It is a powerful yet serene waterfall that I feel is always worth taking a few seconds to stop and admire. This is why we run on mountain trails, right?
Unfortunately after the falls there is another uphill ascent, but nothing to terrible. A net uphill of 500 feet is followed by a descent to the southernmost part of the course at Mile 34. It was during this stretch that I made my only conversation with any of the competitors. A man recognized something about my singlet and asked if I was from New York. It turns out that he, James, had lived in Brooklyn for a number of years! We small-talked a bit during some hike sections. I told him my boyfriend was running this race; he’s now living in Atalanta; we had both run this same race in 2011; …and we had the exact same goal in mind – Top 10 finish, and under 8 hours. Almost immediately I realized that this new trail running friend would also become my race nemesis. Would it come down to one of us chasing down the other to claim the final Top 10 spot? Would the friendly banter turn into lung-searing sprints toward the end, phlegm foaming around our mouths desperately trying to beat the other? I didn’t want to find out, and took advantage of a downhill to create a gap that I hoped he would never end up covering!
At the aid station at mile 34, the course goes on a circular 5 mile loop. While fairly short, it’s deceivingly difficult and takes most people over an hour to run. There’s quite a bit of elevation gain, and there are a lot of switchbacks that break your stride. This year I finished it in a respectable 57 minutes, which sounds slow but I assure you it doesn’t feel it!
Coming out of the loop, I bumped into my boyfriend Connor. I was surprised to see him only an hour behind me because I thought he’d be running bit further back with a friend of ours, but I was happy to see him push his limits a bit in his first 50-mile race. I figured if I would finish around 8 hours, he’d be 90 minutes behind in 9:30 which is very good. Maybe I was a bit cocky thinking that I could put an additional 30 minutes between us in the final 11 miles but I was on a mission!
I kept to that mission and only offered a quick chat with Connor. I would have loved to catch up but I had a time (and people) to chase. I began the final 11 miles feeling pretty beat up. Stopping even for just a few seconds to get more fluids and to say hello to Connor made it difficult to start running again. The only thing that brought me to life was that during this final stretch, there are people going the opposite direction to cheer you on. They’re many miles behind, so they tend to be very courteous and stand to the side to let the faster runners pass and offer brief words of encouragement. “Good job!” “You look great!” To each and every one of you, thank you! Trying to keep up a pace so late in the race is difficult physically, so it’s such a huge mental relief not to have to dodge people on the trail.
One of these runners had been taking a count of the top runners coming back. Somewhere around Mile 40 I was informed that I was in 10th position. Holy shit. I tried to not get excited, but there was no way around the fact that I wanted to hold my position. I was going to die trying if I had to. I knew that with the final 7 miles uphill, I would have to push as hard as I could during the somewhat-runnable section from 40 to 43.
I pushed and pushed, and got to the final aid station for a quick fluid refill. A volunteer confirmed that I was in 10th place. I noticed a runner behind me (shit) in an orange jacket who I had seen here and there on the course throughout the day. I had thought much earlier in the race that he looked to be a strong runner, but this late in the race I didn’t want to find out any more so I kept moving while he stopped.
With 7 miles to go I just emptied the tank. Every uphill was a suffer-fest. I was in a quest to keep my 10th place spot, and if someone was going to pass me during this final section I was going to make them hurt. I wasn’t going to hand over anything so easily. If someone was tracking me down from behind I wanted to show no give-up, no weakness. I wanted to break them before they could hope to pass me.
At Mile 48 I hit a large open dirt trail. The time on my watch read 7 hours and 39 minutes. I had to average about 10 minutes per mile uphill to finish under 8:00. I wasn’t sure that I could do it, but I was too close not to try. I wasn’t sure what I was racing for now – position? Time? Personal satisfaction? All of the above? Could I ease off the gas a bit and still save face? Of course I couldn’t.
My watch was inching nearer and nearer to 8:00. At 7:55 I could make out the top of the mountain in the distance. I knew the finish was near. At 7:57 I could see a building. A building I sort of recognized! I knew the finish line at Covenant College was right ahead of me. And then as I was headed up straight toward that building, there was a course marker that made me turn left. Left?! “No no, I can see the finish area and I want to run straight toward it!” But I had to follow the course marker. I had only 2 minutes to run and I started to retire the sub-8 goal. But then I made another turn, this one right (back in the right direction), and I saw something. I saw the finish chute. I saw the Christmas lights that have greeted me three times before, marking the final 30 meters of course. And of course after one final turn in the chute I saw the finish line. I couldn’t believe it. With only 61 seconds to spare, I crossed timing mat smiling ear to ear.
My official time was 7:58:59. My place? That’s a little bit of a disappointment. It turns out that the volunteers and other runners who told me I was 10th were sort of right. I was 10th…male. 11th overall. I can’t honestly claim to have finished in the Top 10; I can say that I was the 10th male, but that wasn’t what I was going for. Does this mean I have to return another year to try and crack the Top 10? No. But I probably will anyway.