I see things in Chattanooga that I wish I saw in Birmingham. Over the past ten years or so that community has become a Southern mecca for outdoor sport and trail running in particular. This past weekend I was again lucky enough to be a part of it.
Wild Trails is the driving force and passion behind the trails and races that make Chattanooga such an amazing destination. They host several well run and challenging races every year and the Lookout Mountain 50 Mile is the longest race they host.
My crew of traveling vagabonds has gotten pretty good at making these trips more than just a race. Downtown hotels can get pricey, so we opted to find a cabin on Lookout Mountain and drove up Thursday night. You can usually get just as good if not a better rate with these cabins and you end up with a ton more space and privacy. The crew for this race consisted of friends John Gregg (running the 50 miler- not his first rodeo), his wife Katie (puts up with all our crap and runs the 10k), and newcomer Greg Wingo (first 50 miler and rookie to our traveling shenanigans).
Chattanooga has so much to offer so it is nice to have a day to kind of relax and explore the city a bit. We walked around the North Shore, did some indoor rock climbing, enjoyed some gourmet hot dogs and fine local brews before we went to pick up our race packets at Rock Creek. Rock Creek is the outdoor retailer that has become the home base for Wild Trails.
No trip to Chattanooga is complete without a stop at Lupi's Pizza. The only thing better than the pizza is the vibe. I'm not totally sure what makes Lupi's a must on every trip, but you can expect to see me there any time there is an event in town.
It is not uncommon to have nervous energy before a big race, but on the night before this one, I felt calm and relaxed. I prepared two drop bags for the aid stations at mile 22, and 38. I was confident and went to bed.
The weather worked in our favor. A brisk wind and temperatures around 40 degrees at the race start made this race very mild. The rain that was predicted for race day earlier in the week had been pushed back to the following day. No sooner than the sun had come up, we were off to blaze 50 miles on the trails of Lookout Mountain.
My advice for these long races is pretty simple. Whatever pace you think is too slow, go slower. And, eat and then eat some more. I failed miserably at both of these points. The first ten miles of the race are basically flat or downhill. Inevitably I was going a bit faster than I wanted but the ease of the course and runable trail seemed to make this the only choice. As for eating... if you put all of your energy gels in your drop bags, then you don't have any for the first 22 miles.
What goes down must go up, at least when it comes to this race. The mile 22 aid station was back at Covenant College where the race started. I backed off the pace and and took it easy as we climbed from the bottom of Lookout Mountain all the way back to the top. The elevation gain would almost all be covered in a stretch of just 2.6 miles. That made it a slow, but steady climb.
My friend John had been running near or with me at the beginning of the race, but he scurried up a climb and ran away from me at mile 15. Now at mile 20, I look back and saw the Greg marching up the climb. We would run into mile 22 together on a race pace that made us both really happy.
Because I had not had the nutrients I wanted over the first 22 miles, I took some time here to eat. The meal consisted of several Fig Newtons, Peanut M&M's, some Mountain Dew, and I think some Gummi Bears. Nutrition is probably the most important part of an endurance race and this was just the fuel I needed to keep my body moving.
For the most part Greg and I ran the next 14 or so miles together. I was really impressed with his effort in his first 50 mile race. I remembered my first 50 miler and it did not go near as well as his was going.
The fuel and scaled back pace were starting to pay dividends for me now. I felt increasingly good, or at least in comparison to the other runners. The trail was great with some incredible views and runable yet technical terrain. I ran ahead of Greg at mile 36 and was catching and passing a lot of runners. My body felt great and I began to think about time. Could I finish before the sun went down? Could I do better than ten hours?
The course for the last 12 miles is back the exact way we came out. It was rolling but slightly downhill on the way out, so I expected a bit tougher as I headed towards the finish. I can't say enough good things about the job the Wild Trails crew did on these trails. The whole second half of the race had been cleared of leaves which made the trails much easier to run and navigate.
I had been running with a headlamp since mile 38, but I was hoping to not need it. As I left the final aid station with 7.5 miles left to run, there was one hour and 25 minutes until the sun was supposed to set at 5pm local time at 10 hours into the race. I was motivated by that 10 hour time goal. Lets be honest, 9:59:00 looks much better than 10:00:00.
As the finish line grew closer I began to run harder thinking there was a legitimate chance to finish under ten hours. I did not pay very close attention to the trails on the way out so I was unsure of exactly what I had left to run. Over each ridge and around every bend I was hoping to see lights or hear the crowd. I saw or heard no such thing until after the ten hour mark. The official time was 10:01:19 which still thrilled me.
Chattanooga and Wild Trails as usual did not disappoint. Four happy and one extremely sore runner (Greg Not a Rookie Anymore Wingo) finished the night with drinks and food at the Big River Brewing Company. I cannot wait for the next trip.