One of the first things mentioned in this video about the Rock/Creek Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race is that it’s “kinda hard to just come out and wing a three day stage race.” Well, I’m here to tell you that it can be done. For a littany of reasons/excuses, I hadn’t run longer than 18 miles since the last weekend in March. Yet, there I was last Friday, toeing the line of a race in the mountains with days of 18, 22 and 20 miles.
Day One was supposed to be the “easy” day, featuring 18 miles on the trails around the lake at Raccoon Mountain. These were very runable trails with “only” 1,881 feet of climbing according to my watch. The weather was perfect for mid-June, with temps approaching 70 and little humidity at the start. We started in a parking lot and were funneled into the woods via a short paved path where going was slow since the runners had very little room to spread out before hitting the single track. But that was perfectly fine with me, since this wasn’t an 18 mile race, it was a 60 mile race. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that it would be a tough day. My stomach didn’t feel quite right and I just felt “off” while running. My energy levels were low, despite a typical breakfast and plenty of hydration. So, I just decided to keep the pace slow instead of pushing it and risking making things worse. I took my time at aid stations to make sure I refueled properly and got plenty of electrolytes in order to avoid cramps. The section between the mile 8 aid station and mile 13 aid station seemed the toughest to me with the most uphill sections. There were a ton of switchbacks and one of the runners said it’s known as the “small intestine” with all of the twists and turns. That meant that I saw plenty of other runners around me, even if they were well ahead of or behind me on the trail. I finally got to that mile 13 aid station, which would be the last and refueled with some boiled potatoes and a little Mountain Dew. This seemed to pep me up some, and the rest of the race was relatively downhill, which made it a bit quicker. But my legs were really tired at this point and the finish couldn’t come quick enough. At last, I emerged from the woods and made it through the finish, with an official time of 3:18:01. My legs were really feeling it, but a soak in an ice bath at the finish seemed to help freshen them up.
After a shower and a big burger and beer for lunch at Urban Stack, the family and I walked around downtown and over the walking bridge that crosses the Tennessee River. The walking seemed to help my legs recover a bit. That evening, my buddy Jeff and I hit the Crash Pad to mingle with the other runners then grabbed a quick bite next door at The Flying Squirrel before getting ready for day 2.
Day 2 was on Lookout Mountain, and we were graciously given a ride from our hotel by TJ, a local who is a friend of a friend who was also running the stage race. I can’t thank him enough for the local food and beer advice and of course the ride to the start, as it allowed our families to use the vehicles we drove up in. The Lookout Mountain course was billed as being tougher than the Raccoon Mountain course, with over 2,500 feet of climbing over 22 miles. This one started with a much longer run down a gravel, then dirt road before entering the woods. But it backed up again, as there was a brutal climb that required the use of ropes to help the runners pull themselves up. It was a tough climb, but then we got on a ridge with a slow, but steady uphill climb. Yet this section was much more runable than many of the uphills. A big downhill section followed and just after the 5 mile mark we popped out right near the start/finish over a newly built bridge that crossed a creek. Just two weeks prior to that, the previous bridge was washed away in a flash flood, so they scrambled to build a new one and finished just in time for the race. I was feeling much better 5 miles into this day than I was on Friday, and continued on after a quick refill at the aid station. The next section featured a general uphill climb, but was runable for the most part. Somewhere around mile 9.5 there was a big hands-on-knees type climb after a few creek crossings, then we popped out on a powerline trail for another big climb to the aid station at mile 10.7. This climb brought back memories of the Leadville Marathon with its rocky section over the slightly orange dirt. I got to the aid station feeling pretty good and knowing that a lot of what was left would be downhill.
However, somewhere around mile 12, my right hamstring started twitching and I felt a cramp coming on. I had eaten a few salty boiled potatoes and quickly took a few more salt tablets to try to stave off the cramps, which have always been a problem for me in that right hammy. The next few miles were touch and go, as the downhill sections actually made it tougher for me due to the constant pounding. So, what should have been a section to make up some time, turned into a section where I had to be cautious and got passed by a number of people. But fortunately, the salt capsules did their job and I eventually made it back to the aid station at mile 15.5, where I had some more potatoes and Mountain Dew. That really re-energized me, and I took off like a rocket for the final 6.5 mile section. It was another loop of the first section, but run in the opposite direction. This time the first part was uphill, but a bit more gradual, so I was able to run a good chunk of it. Then the ridge section was all downhill, and I held a good pace for several miles there before hitting the big downhill and ropes section. This one was tough going down as everyone had to be really cautious, lest they ruin their day with a tumble. Instead of the dirt/gravel road, we did take a different route that added some mileage and led us through a creek crossing that was more than welcome, since it was about a quarter mile from the finish. I finished strong, with an official time of 3:52:31, which was more middle of the pack than day 1. More importantly, I never cramped up and the good finish gave me confidence for the third day. Check out some of the pictures from day 2 below.
The finish area for this race was great, and I sat in the creek for nearly an hour while drinking a couple beers. That was wonderful on the legs and I felt really good leaving. We hit Mojo Burrito for lunch and refueled with a great burrito and a wonderful Rockin’ Chakra black IPA from Moccasin Bend Brewing. Then we did some touristy stuff with the family, like the Incline Railway and Ruby Falls cave tour. Dinner was pizza from Lupi’s before heading back to the hotel to get ready for day 3.
Day 3. What can I say. We were all warned about it. We were told it was the toughest of the 3 days. And not just because we had already run 40 miles. This is just a damn tough course. Day 3 features 20 miles on Signal Mountain, home of the infamous Rock/Creek Stump Jump 50K. I got out of bed Sunday to stiff legs and burning quads. But I was not going to be denied. I was here to finish the stage race, dammit! Again, TJ picked us up from the hotel for the drive to Signal Mountain. We got there a good 1:15 before the start, which allowed me to really chow down some breakfast and make sure I was good and hydrated. I found myself wishing the race would start sooner than 8:00 AM, just so we could finish. At long last, it was time to go, and it took a while to loosen my legs up.
Upon entering the woods, we were quickly greeted with a big downhill section (400 foot drop) all the way to a creaky swinging bridge that crossed Suck Creek. Then we had to ascend the same amount, before descending again another 300 feet to the first aid station at mile 3.3. Then it was a turn around and do it all over again situation. The first 6 miles were absolutely brutal. The going was slower than slow. Every step was technical, with rocks all around and steep dropoffs at every corner. Finally at about 5 miles in, the course became somewhat runable through the aid station at mile 9.4. The views were absolutely gorgeous, but it was dangerous to look away from your footing for even a second, or you’d risk face planting into a rock. Check out some of what I saw around this section:
I found it curious that the next aid station was only 2.5 miles away. But after leaving the 2nd aid station, we quickly encountered a very long section that was filled with rocks. And rocks. And more rocks. And boulders. Every step was from rock to rock. That 2.5 mile section took about 50 minutes, because there was really no running going on.
Then after the rocks, was a section with stairs. Yes, actual wooden steps that went up and up and up. At long last, we made it to that aid station. I refueled with more Mountain Dew and potatoes (do you sense a theme here?) and took off again. However, the next half mile or so was on the road. The road pounding your legs after 50 miles of trail, is not a good thing. It did take us next to a retirement home where many of the residents were on the front porch cheering us on, which was very cool. We eventually got off the road and onto a nicely groomed trail that was easy to run on. However, that section didn’t last long. In fact, the next 2 or 3 miles were among the toughest of the entire race. The trail was hard to follow and was full of ankle bending slippery rocks. There were sections where I thought, “I have to go over that?” Going was again very, very slow. Here’s just one example. You can see the yellow flag that marks the “trail.”
Yeah, we had to cross over that. And much more exactly like it. Every step was crucial, because you could easily twist an ankle, or just fall down with a wrong step here or there. But somewhere around mile 15, it finally turned back into some nice single track. And fortunately for me, I got a second wind. I started running at a pretty nice clip all the way to the aid station at mile 16.5. I only refilled my bottle there, took a swig of Mountain Dew, then took off, not wanting that second wind to fade into oblivion. I knew there were only 3.5 miles separating me from the finish, and I was determined to get there quickly. This was much easier running, save for a long gradual uphill that had me walking at the end. But then it turned into smooth trail covered in crushed rock. It was easy running, but also the longest 3.5 mile stretch I can remember. Each time I thought I’d round a bend and see the finish line, my hopes were dashed. Finally, a volunteer on the course told me the finish was right around the corner. At last, I popped out of the woods and saw the finish arch. My family was waiting for me there, and it was a welcome sight. I crossed the finish line in 4:27:38, a good 30+ minutes ahead of the cutoff. And I was done. While the total time for the 3 days was 11:38:10, or nearly 5 hours behind the winner, I still finished what I set out to accomplish. Day 3 was by far the toughest, but it was also the most beautiful course and the most rewarding of the 3 days. And all the finishers got a great Marmot running jacket that beats any kind of medal or buckle other races give out to finishers. That’s a great finsher’s award, and I know it will be put to good use.
Check out the official overall results as well as for each day. We were told that 260 runners signed up for the stage race. Of the 216 that started the race on Friday, only 166 finished within the cutoff time at the end of the day Sunday. So while my 124th overall finish may not sound that great, I’m proud of the fact that I did finish, especially since I pretty much winged it out there. Maybe I should train a little more next time.
Would I do this race again? Absolutely. It was a great experience in a great city on great trails. Rock/Creek and the Wild Trails organization and all their volunteers did a phenomenal job putting this 3 day race on. Having helped put on trail races before, I can really appreciate the hard work that went into the entire event, from start/finish setup to marking the course, to tear down each day, only to do it all over again the next day. It takes a great group of people to make this kind of race a success and to go off without a hitch, but they executed flawlessly. I can’t say enough good things about it, and I will recommend this race to anyone who thinks they are up for the challenge. I’m already thinking about my next trip to a Rock/Creek sponsored race. Chattanooga is such a great city, and I can’t wait to get back.
And a big thanks to Jeff Beck and FORGE Racing for sponsoring me for this race. Our families had a great time together on this trip, and I hope to do it again soon!