February 27, 2010
Saturday was the 5th running of the Mount Cheaha 50km. Slated as the 'Race to the Top of Alabama', this point to point course through the Talladega National Forest is one of the toughest ultra distance races in the region. This year the race was part of the Montrail Ultra Cup which seem to help draw a few more competitive athletes to compliment the already fast regional ultra runners.
This race starts along the edge of Highway 77 at just over 1000' and finishes at the summit of Cheaha Mountain with an elevation of 2,407' which is the highest point in Alabama. Along the way there are numerous creek crossings, scenic overlooks, technical footing, trails with extreme candor and the toughest final climb in ultra running up 'Blue Hell'. The course is mostly single track trails but also has some gravel and paved road running that can by equally trying. The entire course is very humbling for even the best ultramarathoners. Looking at the elevation profile, it is clear to see that there is not a flat section along the entire course.
The Elevation Profile
To get the true race experience, you really need to stay at the Cheaha Mountain Lodge. Todd Henderson, the race director, rents out the entire lodge and offers rooms for ver affordable rates. The prerace meal, packet pickup and busing to the start are all at the Lodge. There is something priceless about the camaraderie of sleeping in bunk beds with your closest ultra running buddies, watching TV in the great room with new friends the night before the race, and having a hot personal shower just a few feet from the finish are great facets of the race.
The Bus Ride
Riding the bus from the Lodge is very 'Boston-Marathon-esque' although not quite as long of a trip. For nearly 45 minutes we rode down the back side of the mountain in a Clay County Sheriffs bus retrofitted to transfer prisoners. With a front cage, shotgun at the helm next to the driver and metal on the outside of the windows, I felt like Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) in The Fugitive. All kidding aside, it is part of the experience, but as we barrel down a winding road with our knees up under our chins, I began to feel slightly ill. Fellow ultra runner Eric Fritz was seated net to me and he was looking fairly green in color. Small prerace chatter surrounded us, talking about the course, the favorites, and what not. With only two buses transporting 150 runners, some people were standing in the aisle. Luckily we got on early and snagged a seat. Either way, by the time we made it to the start, all those sitting and standing were all ready to get out.
For clothing I was wearing my favorite Nike Race Day 3" split shorts. These shorts have a rear zip pocket water resistant pocket large enough to hold two gels and the split does not hind my leg lift on climbs. I was wearing my new 2XU brand inov-8 team singlet that arrived in the mail this week. My socks were brand new Smart Wool PhD Trail Running and shoes were inov-8 roclite 305. I chose the 305 for this race as I knew the footing was going to be a challenge and the 305 has great side to side support to prevent rolling over your ankle. Plus I had run quite a few ultras in the 305 lately and was very comfortable wearing this shoe right out of the box. I had Zensah calf sleeves on to help prevent calf cramping and shin splints on the downhill sections. Since Dizzy 50's in November I had also been experimenting with KT Tape on my knees; I did not have any knee pain but the tape provides great support and keeps the knee from getting sloppy.
While some ultras have a road section at the start to allow the crowd to thin out before moving onto the single track, that is not the case here. The start is at a trail head which really is just a turn off on the highway. The runners are backed up to the edge of the road and packed in to the starting line, which is just 50 yards from the woods. This results in a mad rush to the trail head for the front runners and slow going for the mid and back-of-the-pack runners for the first few miles. Todd had considered an out-and-back on Highway 77 this year, adding a half mile to the race to help alleviate the problem but he was quickly dissuaded otherwise by Dink Taylor and DeWayne Satterfield.
The Start to Chandler Springs
From the start we were running tightly together in a small chase pack trailing two people who went out hard into the lead. Running together were 5 runners, including DeWayne, Tim Vinson, Dane Mitchell and me. The trail had very soft footing and despite a gradual climb, it was very easy going. I didn't let this give me a false sense of security as I knew that the footing and course could change at any time. The first 2-1/2 miles climbed from 900' up to about 1400' before dropping back off toward the first aid station at Chandler Springs. Tim, DeWayne and I mostly stayed together as Dane had picked up the pace and was off to chase the leaders. The weather was perfect with temperatures in the upper 30's with just a light breeze.
Chandler Springs to Clairmont Gap
Running through the aid station still carrying a nearly full bottle, we ran along the gravel road leading back into the forest. From the first aid station for the next mile and a half was another steady climb on single track. The pace remained fairly steady between the high 7's and the low 8's and it seemed comfortable. I wasn't laboring at all and was actually enjoying the race. Starting off slowly in the first few miles and not going out hard from the start was the smart move. I had taken the lead of our chase pack but DeWayne and Tim stayed close. We quickly caught and passed one of the front runners who went out too hard.
Mile 5 was single track and started the third significant climb of the race and finally ended with a hard right back onto Skyline (gravel road). I had no intentions of pushing the pace this early so I just stayed with an even effort on the 5% grade incline. DeWayne and Tim fell back slightly and as the wind changed, I could periodically hear them chatting behind me. Not knowing much about the course, I didn't realize that we spent so much time of this gravel road but as we crested out on top it had been a full mile which I split at 8:15. As we rounded a bend, the road began to drop quickly and I increased my turnover, picking up the pace. The road was a little washed out so there was not a clear line of good footing so I weaved slightly on the way down which must have been strange to watch from behind. It was almost a mile and a half of drop at which I held 6:30 pace. Non technical down hills play into my strengths as I can not stay with the better runners if the terrain is difficult, so for once I actually gained some time on this drop. I finally came across an aid station worker who had jogged up the hill and said that the aid station was just ahead. I used that notification to take some fuel in the form of PowerBar Gel Blasts. My bottle was still half full and based on the distance to the next aid station, I would decide to fill it or run through.
Clairmont Gap to Adams Gap
I approached the aid station and saw Todd standing there. I asked him how far to the aid station and he said that it was another 6 miles. I had enough fluids and knowing that I was running in 3rd place, I decided not to stop. The climb coming out of the aid station was brutal; switch backs on narrow trail that was covered with slippery leaves that made it difficult to run at all. I walked for just a few seconds several times to avoid redlining on this climb as I didn't really think that I would gain much with a running motion. This was the smart decision as I was able to maintain a low 9 minute pace to the top and did not have a long recovery time before I could pick up the effort again.
We ran along the top of this bluff, crossing the Talladega Scenic Highway (gravel road) twice more at just before 11 miles and again at 11.5. I was still not looking at my watch other than for total time and elevation. I was trying not to think about the distance covered. As we went back into the woods again, I could hear foot steps behind me. After a few minutes I realized that it was DeWayne and he was running strong. He mentioned that Tim had backed off on the last climb but was probably just preserving energy for later in the race. I stepped aside on the trail and let him run through. I mentioned that the candor of the trail was difficult. The trail was carved onto the western/northern side of the ridge line and therefore was not flat but actually slopped right to left. I had gone through physical therapy since Rocket City Marathon, but the candor was really bothering my hips, especially the left as my left foot was going farther to strike the ground than the right. DeWayne said that this was going to continue for several more miles. As he ran by I took an Aleve to take the edge off of the pain.
Along with the trail candor, the technical degree had increased with more and more rocks and the frequent blow-down. Together these slowed down my overall pace and it did not take long for Tim to close the gap. We ran together for awhile, which helped Tim as I stopped him from making a wrong turn at one jeep road crossing. As we ran into and out of the many coves, we were caught by another runner who came out of no where. It was Eric Gilbertson, who finished just behind me at Mountain Mist 50km last month. The three of us approached the out and back section to the third aid station at mile 15.
Adams Gap to Hubbard Creek
I filled my bottle at the aid station and was back out quickly down the trail. On the way out, I saw another runner behind our small group. Allowing for some time at the aid station, I was guessing that he was less than 2 minutes back. My overall split at the half way mark was 2:10 and change. On one hand this was a great split and on an out-and-back, two-loop or a course where the second half was equal in difficulty to the first half this would have lead to a great time. Given this course and the continued uphill climbs to the Top of Alabama, my glass was now half empty as I realized that I may have trouble finishing under 5 hours. Only a handful of runners had broken the 5-hour mark in the previous four runnings and represented the mark of a good ultra runner on the course.
By mile 16 Tim and Eric had passed me as I started to slow down and had several splits in the low 10's. The footing was still technical but it was not impossible. I was going through a low point in the mind games of an ultra marathon. Having slipped from 3rd to 6th and then David Howe passing by like I was standing still had me doubting my ability. This usually means that I am low on fuel and my brain is diverting energy to more essential processes and if I don't do something quickly, the bonk is soon to ensue. I took some more Gel Blasts and continued plodding along toward the next aid station, now trying to break the race down into smaller, more manageable sections in my mind.
Hubbard Creek to Lake Chinnabee
Of all of the sections of the race, this is the one that I remember the least. Usually I am trying to take in as much of the scenery as I can and constantly thinking about my surroundings in hope that it will to unlock my memory later when I want to write about the race. I was mostly doing the math in my head for where I was on the course and what my projected time at the finish would be. The only significant part I recall was crossing the stream just before the Lake Chinnabee aid station. I think that this was where the rope had been in the past when the water level was high. We had a wet winter in Alabama but recently it had been mostly dry so the water was only up to the mid-shin level. I dragged my feet across the stream hoping that the chilly waters would reduce some of the swelling in my feet. Coming out of the stream was the second out-and-back section down to the aid station. I looked at my watch so that I could see how much time was between me and the next runner, should I see one on the return trip.
Coming into the aid station I was slightly disappointed that none of the numerous volunteers was eager to help out. Maybe I surprised them when I got there, but I went right over to the table and filled my own bottle. I am guessing this was just a minor aberration as otherwise the volunteers were very helpful. I asked the distance to the next aid station and thanked them as I left.
Running back up the dry creek bed and back onto the course, I had clocked about 3 minutes and did not see anyone behind me. This was slightly reassuring, though my pessimistic mindset at this point in the race had me thinking how much I could slow down, in combination with how much the next runner would have to speed up in order to catch me. I really need to work on being more headstrong in the later stages of races like this.
Lake Chinnabee to Lake Cheaha
The next section had the most footing variety of the entire race. We started out by running along a technical section adjacent to the creek. This would be a great section for day-hiking and picture-taking as there were quite a few small waterfalls and other sites to see. There were also plenty of people either camping out hiking over the next mile which was a nice change from the solitude of the earlier miles. Eventually we made a hard left onto another gravel road. I remembered hearing people talk about this section while on the bus ride down to the start but somehow it was surprising when I got there. For a mile and half I ran straight ahead, able to see the entire section in each direction. I caught a few glimpses of David in the distance but I had severe doubts that I would be able to catch him in the miles remaining. I was running a pace in the high 8's but it was strenuous at best.
The gravel road eventually intersected Cheaha Road which was a paved surface. This may have been the most painful part of the entire course as the temperature had increased and switching from trail to blacktop is always tough, especially this late in the race. I struggled through the paved mile to the entrance for Lake Cheaha park. I saw Todd's son, (can't remember his name) whom I had met at Stump Jump 50k in Chattanooga last fall. I am not sure if he remembered me or not, but he shouted 'Run Forrest Run' as I passed, referring to my shaggy beard I can only assume.
Lake Cheaha to Bald Rock Lodge
At the aid station, I filled my bottle and grabbed four chocolate chip cookies. The final section of the course is the most difficult as it includes 'Blue Hell' which starts almost immediately after the aid station. I had planned on having the next mile take 20 minutes and it took every second of that. While I never stopped to catch my breathe, I was also walking every step. The climb is comprised of large rocks marked with obsessive blue paint that guides the weary runner toward the top. About a third of the way up, I saw David again. He was cramping and had stopped all-together. I offered him a cookie as I was all out of S! Caps. He declined the offer and stayed there while I continued upward. This was minor deja vu as I had passed David along the Waterline climb of Mountain Mist last month where he was low on energy and eventually dropped out.
At the top there were people rock climbing up one of the outward faces. I pardoned my way around them and then made a questionable decision by filing my water bottle out of the stream. Eating the cookies made me thirsty and my bottle was almost empty. I thought that there was another 2 miles to the finish so I dipped it into the rocky stream. In my defense, it was flowing water at top of the highest point in the state, so how polluted could it really be? I never did make me sick.
At the top, the course turned back onto a paved road. I was completely turned around as the paved loop was not as long as I thought I had left. After crossing passed the sign for the highest point in the state, the course weaved through the woods again before turning out at the entrance to the lodge. My GPS had tracked true through mile 22 but must have lost signal since then as I was reading 29.5 and the finish line was just around the corner. Feeling rejuvenated, I picked up the pace toward the end. There was a guy using a PA system that called my name as I made the final turn toward the finish where I could see Todd. As I crossed the line, I stopped my watch at 4:54:07 for a 6th place overall finish.
Team inov-8 Finishers
My 4-hour and 54-minute finish was just the 18th time under 5 hours ever on this course. Including the 2010 results there have been 561 finishers of this race, so the sub 5 hour finishers represent just 3.2% of all runners. The average finishing time for runners across all five years is 7 hours and 19 seconds. With an 8-hour cutoff, that means that half of the finishers are above 7 hours and half are below.
Fastest Course Times (5 hours and under)
01 - 4:00:25 Dane Mitchell, 2010
02 - 4:32:23 Jamie Dial, 2008
03 - 4:36:00 DeWayne Satterfield, 2010
04 - 4:39:22 Alex Darth, 2010
05 - 4:40:31 Tim Vinson, 2010
06 - 4:42:52 DeWayne Satterfield, 2008
07 - 4:44:24 Eric Gilbertson, 2010
08 - 4:50:25 Robert Pritchett, 2006
09 - 4:51:17 Dink Taylor, 2007
10 - 4:53:10 Mike Consentino, 2007
11 - 4:54:07 Eric Charette, 2010
12 - 4:55:17 Robert Youngren, 2007
13 - 4:55:55 Dink Taylor, 2008
14 - 4:56:29 Thomas Boyd, 2008
15 - 4:57:47 Matt Sims, 2008
16 - 4:58:18 Dink Taylor, 2009
17 - 4:58:46 David Howe, 2010
18 - 4:58:47 Dink Taylor, 2006
Saturday, March 6, 2010