I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Race Report: 100kout Mountain - Part One

Okay. Time to get back on the horse. It’s only been a little more than 5 weeks since I ran the Lookout Mountain 100K (aka: the 100kout Mountain), but somehow it already feels like months ago. So much has been happening – luckily, none of it bad stuff – but it has kept me from the blog. It seems pointless, now, to try and compose a “full” race report, but given my long-winded tendencies, that’s probably not really a bad thing. Besides, even if my writing has come to a halt, my running hasn’t and there are other things worth writing about now anyway. But I’ll handle old business first.

I’m going to do this with a series of “shorter” posts, because rather than recount the race as a whole, there are several different episodes I’d like to describe or points I’d like to make. So, I’ll offer each with a new post and a header.

Here goes…


I had notions of trying to finish my first 100-Miler in 2008. I signed up for the Cascade Crest 100 in Washington State, but when the logistics and expenses of that trip proved too large and difficult to negotiate, I had to withdraw a couple of months before race date. I was unable to find another 100M that fit into my calendar, and I resigned myself to putting it off until another season.

Then in August, I found the Lookout Mountain 100K on a race calendar scheduled for late December. It would be the weekend before Christmas in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it would be easy to stop over there for the weekend on my way south to Atlanta to visit my parents for the holiday. A perfect consolation race!

So, I could still finish a “100” in ’08, and – though not the 100 Miler I’d originally hoped to complete – it would still rank as the longest race I’d ever run. My work schedule would not allow an ideal training build-up for a 62-mile Ultra, but I decided way back in August, that my finish time wouldn’t matter in anyway.

The only catch was the race would actually have the strictest cutoff time of any race I’d ever run. Start time would be after 7am, and the course would close at 1am that night – less that 18 hours. (By contrast, the two 50-milers I did both had 38 hour cutoffs!)

So, I’d have to be careful and manage my pace to make those cutoffs at each aid station, but still, I’d just run it to finish it. Period. No time goals. No ambition. No pride. Just get to the finish line before they shut the thing down.

And that’s what I did.

The weather wasn’t bad. Temps were in the high 50s all day, but it was cloudy with a chilly, occasional rain that came and went throughout. The sometimes rocky trails were slippery as a result, and, after an early afternoon, hour-long down poor, some sections of the course were more like a muddy creek than a dirt running path. But I wasn’t running for a good time, just for a good time, and it was easy to keep my sense of humor about everything. I had prepared a cheat sheet in a plastic bag with Aid Station names, the miles between them and cutoff times at each, and I just made sure I was staying ahead of those numbers.

They sent us off at the start as soon as enough daylight had dawned to give us a little light. That turned out to be around 7:40 am. It was worth a little wait, though, because we began next to a stunning, raging waterfall that spilled down a rocky ravine and over a cliff beside us to continue on in the river below. The rainy week preceeding the race had only added to the spectacle. (We finally got enough daylight to start the race, but never quite enough to get a good photo of the falls. Oh well.)

It was an impressive way to start. Of course I still managed to have a few misadventures…

About 8 or 9 miles into the race, I was running a beautiful section of the course that followed a hiking trail high along the ridge of the mountain’s crest. The valley below was stunning, filled with clouds and morning fog, and far below. The rocky mountain wall climbed upwards on our right and dropped off sharply down on our left.

I’d finally reached a less precipitous, pine needle-strewn section and had reached a few trail switch-backs, when I looked up to see another runner coming back at me from the opposite direction, an Asian girl in a black cap and red top. Later in the day, she would tell me her name was Lori. She said she’d slipped and fallen off the side of the trail, and though she was fine, she was a little disoriented and, apparently, had started running back the wrong way.

Well, I was not 100% sure that I was going the right way, myself. Everything about the event organization was great except one significant flaw: there really weren’t enough ribbons out marking the course. I will say, there were always ribbons at the intersections, but there were hardly any – and often none – on the long stretches on trail between the intersections. If you’re running a new or unfamiliar course, and run 20 minutes without seeing any ribbons, it’s easy to start doubting yourself, even if you’re pretty sure you made the proper turn the last time you came to one.

I went out on a limb, though, and told Lori I was pretty sure that it was me who was going the right way. I remembered seeing her pass me just before the first aid station, and if she’d been in front of me, it stood to reason that she was the one who had accidentally doubled-back again on the trail. A couple of miles later, when we reached the 2nd aid station, my deductions were validated.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t yet done struggling with the course.

The 3 miles stretch after the 2nd aid station was a gently sloping, downhill cruise on a wide, soft fire road. It was glide-time and peaceful. That is, until I passed a large lodge, crossed a paved road and, 150 yards later, found myself staring at a burned-out wooden bridge spanning a wide ravine below. It completely blocked me from continuing down the trail. How could that be right?

Two other runners had gotten there right before I did; two young, crew-cut blonde guys who looked like (and they were) brothers. They agreed with me. It didn’t seem like this bridge could be a part of the course, but none of us had seen any intersections of any kind on the trail, let alone any course marking ribbons. I hadn’t been able to make it to the pre-race briefing on Friday night, but the brothers had, and they couldn’t remember any talk of a burned-out bridge.

There was a way to cross it – along the edge, outside the railing, on the end of the wooden support ribs – but it seemed a little too precarious to be part of a trail race. We stood weighing that fact against the contradicting fact that we’d been on a single road with no turns for several miles, so how could this not be right?

I looked back up the road to see yet another runner headed toward us and the bridge. My first thought was: Oh good, someone else came this way, too. The more people who came this way, the greater the chance that the route was correct, right? But then I looked again and saw that the runner was Lori, which made me laugh. I told her outright, with a big smile, that I didn’t take it as a good sign that I followed the same direction she had taken.

By extraordinary luck, I had an Ace in the hole – otherwise known as a Cell phone in my pocket. I gotta say; there’re two things I’ve never had in a race before: my phone and the Race Director’s phone number. This time, by grand coincidence, I had both. I had to call Kris Wharton, the RD on the Thursday before the race. Her number was still in my phone’s call log, so I pulled out the phone, looked up the call record and pushed “Send”. And the good luck continued: I had a strong signal here on the mountain, the number was, indeed, Kris’ cell phone, and she answered it after a couple of rings!

“Hello,” I said, “this is Greg, I’m actually running the 100K today, I think I’m lost, and I was wondering if you might be able to direct me back on course.”

It was an unexpected call for her, to be sure. Her first response was a big Oh NO. An RD’s worst fear for a long trail race is lost runners. But when I mentioned the burned out bridge, she knew exactly where I was talking about (the lodge we’d just passed was actually the Ruby Falls tourist attraction), and she was able to given me rather precise directions to get back on course.

The bad news was, we’d gone at least a mile out of the way. Somewhere back up the fire road behind us, we were supposed to have turned left off of that road and dropped down onto a forest single-track trail below. Now we had to backtrack for a mile or more back uphill to get to that turnoff. I thanked Kris profusely and told her not to worry, we were all fine.

As the four of us got moving back up the hill again, yet another runner – the fifth now, including me – was coming down the road past Ruby Falls toward us. She wasn’t really happy when we told her what had happened. In fact, all four of my compatriots were a little down-spirited about the turn of events. Only Lori seemed to bounce back from it relatively okay, but she quickly confessed it was only because she was already planning to drop out at the 38-mile point, when the course took us back through the Start/Finish line.

I wasn’t thrilled either. I’d lost something like 25 or 30 minutes. And when we finally made it back up to the turn off point that we’d missed, I could see that the turn was marked but not in a very foolproof way. (After running 2 miles downhill on a wide fire road, a few pink ribbons on the side of the road at an otherwise invisible trailhead aren’t really enough. Should we all have seen them? Perhaps. But a white sign with an arrow would have been far, far harder to miss. Oh well.) But in spite of this, I kept my good humor and pressed on. It was a marked improvement over my attitude two weeks earlier at the Tecumseh Trail Marathon. I think my modest goals for the day helped me immensely.

Lori and I didn’t exactly run together for the next 17 miles, but for much of that time we remained, at least, in eye shot of each other. She was definitely in good enough shape to run off ahead of me for good, but after two big wrong turns, she was a little gun shy. I couldn’t blame her. We were still running long stretches of what seemed to be the actual trail without seeing any ribbon markings. It was much harder now to just have faith that we were still on the right track between ribbon sightings.

I must say, too, that Kris, the RD, was really wonderful and concerned about us. She actually called me back again – twice – to be sure that we’d been able to find our way back to the trail and then to try and find out from me which other runners had been with us so she could make a note of who and how many had missed the turn.

It made me think: Event volunteers at each aid station are usually in touch with the RD and official staff during an event like this, but they simply can’t be everywhere. It might be a good, standard practice for RDs to dole out their cell phone numbers and for runners to be encouraged to carry their phones during the event. Not just for getting directions to lost runners, but also to get medical aid to runners faster. A runner who takes a serious fall, might normally have to wait for another runner to pass, then for that runner to make it to an aid station, before anyone would even be able to find out that a runner was in trouble. With a cell phone protocol in place, the injured runner themselves would be able to, literally, call for help. In a real emergency, aid might be gotten far more quickly. Just a thought.


704 Studio said...

Greg - thanks for the comment on my running blog.

I'm glad to see you made it back to your blog.

Ok, time for some hot cocoa while I read through your report :)

704 Studio said...

Even though you missed a few weeks, I can tell your writing and recall for detail did not suffer - nice beginning post!

I like your goals for the race - have a GOOD time, and not worry about a good TIME - must say that is a pretty clever saying, one I won't forget.

Last summer when I started running longer distances, I realized that I did not want to think about finish times for an ultra, and then I further realized I should carry that idea over to all distances. Running for the pure pleasure of it makes me happier and more relaxed, and I also noticed that I end up running a similar time anyway, so no need to worry about time goals anymore.

Ok, on to part II...