I could not have been more excited for this race. It was on my short list of awesome looking Georgia races and even though I accepted that it might not work out for 2016, a twenty percent off promotion put the idea back on the table. My parents-in-law overheard me excitedly talking to my husband Matt about it and not only did they cook me a delicious meal that evening, they offered to personally sponsor me for the race. I say this all the time but while everyone else is making jokes about their in-laws I am joking around with mine. They are amazing and supportive and I love them.
Unfortunately, about a week before the race things started falling apart. Paul wasn’t going to be able to come because of a commitment at church, the rest of us got sick and then two days before the race my son Linden had a scary asthma episode. I had strongly considered not even running because it felt wrong to leave Linden when he had been feeling so bad. Last minute we decided that Betty would stay home with the boys and that my mom, who was also sick, would crew me at the race.
I was pretty tired from taking care of Linden the night before so as I power-napped, Matt stayed up and prepped most of my stuff for the race – yes, he is that awesome! Two hours of sleep later and I was leaving for Cloudland Canyon State Park, just an hour’s drive from our house. After my hour long jam session in the car, I parked in the grass field next to the group lodge. I looked over and my friends from the Barkley Fall Classic, Trung and Consuela, had parked right next to me! We headed in to race check-in and I chatted with a few people I recognized from the trail running group in Knoxville. It’s fun getting to know so many like-minded crazies in this awesome ultra-running community.
Soon enough we were all called outside to the race start for the pre-race instructions. One thing that stuck out was, and I’m paraphrasing here, “The course is well-marked so if you get lost it’s because you are an idiot”. Most of you are too nice to tell me but now I know the truth.. I am in fact an idiot. More on that later.
Just a short speech later and we were off, heading down the road into the dark fog. The plan is to be out there all day so we all kind of shuffle along like some big group run. We soon hit trail and join the inevitable conga line of runners, slowing to a walk occasionally. Lucky for me, I am slow and don’t mind. I have fun talking with some fellow runners and relish what little scenery my headlamp offers. I don’t love running with a headlamp but I’ll admit it was pretty neat seeing the string of lights bobbing through the woods. The trails here were smooth and easy and my feet stayed dry – it was like a trail running vacation!
Soon enough we hit the first aid station, something like 6 miles in. I snacked on some dark chocolate covered pretzels that I had made (10/10 would eat again) and joined back up with some fun runners from Charleston. We had fun talking about snakes, plants and running related stuff but eventually I slowed down some and ran by myself for a few miles. I adjusted my headlamp at exactly the wrong time and unknowingly passed a critical intersection. I eventually came to a crossroads with no markings, only a truck blocking the trail in one direction and an open trail going up a hill to the left. I assumed the truck was supposed to be blocking the path and I continued to the left. On the way up I saw the group I had been with earlier coming back towards me. They had apparently gone about a mile or two out of the way until a volunteer told them to head back down the hill and turn at the truck. I tucked in behind them, wondering where we went wrong but glad I hadn’t gone quite so far. We ended up back at the truck where a large group of runners had piled up and were walking around trying to sort out which way to go. We walked passed the truck and saw some course markers which further confused things as we couldn’t tell if they were going straight or following the trail to the right. A lot of us went straight until seeing a runner coming from the opposite direction heading towards us. What now?! He said the trail made a big loop, that there was a turn to the left and then it looped around to the point we were at. Great… the others had just done that and were told they went the wrong way. It was quite comical, this big group of 30 or so runners wandering around trying to make sense of it all. We consoled ourselves by scoffing at the race director and saying things like, “We can’t all be idiots, right?” Make no mistake, bashing the race director is a normal phase in most ultra-runs, but it is normally reserved for the final twenty percent of a difficult race (and typically ending immediately after crossing the finish line, when the race director resumes hero/celebrity status for the rest of the year). Thankfully another runner clarified the situation for us – the trail was indeed a loop and we did have to go up a hill and to the left but we had to go back about a third of a mile before we would see it. Back we went until we saw the turn, plain as day! I felt pretty sheepish for having missed it BECAUSE I AM AN IDIOT. In our defense it was at least dark out?
The course went up a few moderate switchbacks into a beautiful, rocky section, right as the sun was coming up. The next twenty miles or so were a blur of beautiful trails, mountain laurel and rhododendrons, amusing conversations, and wonderful aid stations complete with helpful and upbeat volunteers. The trails near the five points system were unique and fun, going up and over short, punchy hills within a larger valley that was pocked with sinkholes and the occasional pond. The fog added to the strangeness of it all, making it feel like we were running through a scene out of Star Wars.
I enjoyed this section but my mood was somewhat subdued the whole day as I worried about Linden’s asthma. I normally consider running a nice break from my normal life as a stay-at-home mom but I instead felt the weight of leaving him. What a sweet thing it was for Betty to send me text messages throughout the day letting me know that Linden was feeling better and that they were all doing well.
I got some pep in my step around mile 21, looking forward to seeing my mom and husband at the next aid station. I ran for a solid chunk, joking around with two firefighters I had run with off and on throughout the day. I joined in on some good wholesome conversations like how the trail names could be used instead for various strip joints, and other good ones. Where the previous aid station felt longer than advertised, this aid station felt like it arrived much sooner. I hit mile 26(ish) around 11am, six hours into the race, and happy to be right on target. Not as fast as I wanted but not as slow as it could have taken me either. I took a swig of soda from the aid station and looked around for my family who had pulled into the aid station just in time! Matt and my mom jumped out of the car and I stayed a few minutes to enjoy their company and a warm meal. My mom was clearly congested and sick and Matt had driven over an hour to see me for just this aid station but there they were, in the cold rain no less. I don’t know why they put up with me!
Back out I went, with tired legs but warm food in my belly. It would be twelve more miles until I’d see my mom again, heading back on the same trails we had run earlier when it was dark. It’s always interesting to note how it seems like the miles get longer and the hills get steeper as you get further into the race. The benefit of having done this kind of thing before is that I can usually tell myself it’s just my mind playing tricks on me. Just the same, it felt like forever between aid stations and I started worrying about cut-off times, even if that thought did nothing to motivate me to run faster. I ran with a man named Fred for a good bit and enjoyed talking with him as we finally came into the aid station, just thirty minutes ahead of the cutoff time.
Just after the aid station, I came across a “bucket-john” on stilts. When I first opened the door all I saw were two metal trash cans, one large and one small. Oh gosh, is that what they meant by bucket-john? I noticed the tiny toilet seat in the corner and was glad I didn’t climb those eight steps for nothing! The cans apparently held wood chips, which you throw in after using the bathroom. It was interesting to say the least but I was just happy I didn’t have to worry about peeing in front of an audience (which has happened before).
As I continued on, my thoughts oscillated between the following for almost the rest of the race: I’ve caused my family all this hullabaloo and I might not even make the cutoff times to finish? Meh, it’s just as well, I’ll get to go home and relieve Betty and my mom of all this nonsense. But then I won’t get to see the best part of the race! So? – No one else in the family is getting to see it, I’ll want to come back anyway.
I’m glad to report that I did finish the race within the cut-off times, but it was not without some additional suffering… which, in a weird way, makes the race more enjoyable to look back on. The lower the valleys, the higher the peaks and all that good stuff.
By 2:30pm, 7.5 hours into the race, I was coming into the aid station at mile 38 which was also the start/finish area. I said hi to my mom, got a snack, joked with the child laborers who helped me at the aid station (who were awesome by the way!) and went on my way. I wasn’t really sure how the rest of the course was laid out but I was told I had about 7 miles of mostly downhill running before I would get to the gorge, where a park ranger would let me know if I could go down into the canyon based on the cutoff times. I ran the majority of this road section, hoping it would afford me more time later on. After what felt like forever (read: four miles), I followed the flagging into a camping area and onto the West Rim Trail. The trail wasn’t too difficult in terms of elevation change but it was extremely technical, with lots of rocks and roots. It was on this section of trail that I ran into Trung and his wife Consuela, pretty fitting considering I met Trung during the final miles of the Barkley Fall Classic. Consuela was suffering through some kind of injury (a stress fracture or something similar?) and was mostly just hiking at this point, though I struggled to even keep up with her walking pace. We talked about how we must be getting close to the aid station but it never came. Mentally, I was probably at my lowest point of the race but thankfully the views here were the greatest! We turned a corner on the trail and I was pleasantly surprised with a view of the city of Trenton, down in the valley below. This race saves the best for last and the views kept getting better and better.
Soon we were rewarded with views of Cloudland Canyon, the namesake of the park – what a thrillingly beautiful place! Pictures failed to adequately portray the impressive depth of the gorge so I was completely floored when I finally got to see it for myself. After eleven hours of hard work, standing on one of the rock outcrops overlooking the canyon was a deeply satisfying experience. It was one of those moments you wish could last forever. Unfortunately for me, the clock was still ticking and I had hours of butt-kicking work ahead of me.
On one particular rock I saw a course marker followed by an increasingly narrowing rock ledge where Fred was climbing around a tree on the edge of a sizable cliff. Oh no, this couldn’t possibly be the route, could it? Luckily, the course had actually turned, going up between two large rocks and I alerted Fred that he didn’t have to continue more rock climbing shenanigans. Later, Fred gave me a high-five for saving his life.
We never saw a ranger or an aid station but we really had no choice but to keep going so onward we went. First there were a few earthen steps and then a 1,200 stair descent into the center of the canyon. I was whining and complaining the whole time but really, this was awesome!!! The rocks, the waterfalls, the stairs – the whole thing was incredible! I had gloves on so I just leaned against the railing and let gravity do most of the work. I kept asking how far until the aid station and the answers seemed to stay the same. I knew it would feel further then it actually was but I still couldn’t understand how I wasn’t there yet. Everyone coming up the stairs looked so tired and defeated, but misery loves company so I didn’t mind. It was still great to see all the runners I had befriended throughout the day as they headed back on the final stretch to the finish.
Once at the bottom, I ran what was probably 2.5 miles of easy rolling gravel trail until the aid station. It was among the longest 2.5 miles I have ever run. You know how they say a watched pot never boils? I need a phrase like that for running. I was seriously like a kid on a road trip, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” I feel bad for anyone who had to run with me during this section.
Even though time felt like it was moving like molasses, I did eventually make it to the mile 45 aid station, which I decided was more like the mile 50 aid station. I was cranky until I realized how cranky I was being, which then made it somewhat comical. I started cheering up as I talked to my mom and enjoyed the relief that I was actually going to finish this thing. It was 5pm and I still had 2 hours to finish the remaining 5 miles. I don’t normally stray from my list of tried and true running foods but there was a plate of cookies that looked delicious and I wasn’t saying no. I ate two and they were amazing.
The final stretch was intense but beautiful. Once or twice I literally crawled up the stairs like a bear, using my hands on the steps in front of me. For the most part though, climbing up wasn’t as bad as I expected, especially since the climb was broken up by two small out and backs leading to beautiful waterfalls. I also had the railing to lean onto which was nice. At one point I passed by some people heading down the stairs. They cheered me on and I said something cranky like, “I FEEL LIKE DEATH!” We exchanged a few words in passing and the woman said to just remember that, “♪Everything is awesome!♪ which immediately made me smile as I sang the next line (from the Lego movie), “♪Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!♪” Thanks for cheering me up, kind strangers!
I reached the top sooner then expected and donned my headlamp for the last mile or two to the finish. I crested the last hill and heard the most beautiful words I had heard all day, “Runner!” Woohoo!!! I was there! I choked up as I ran to the final aid station tent. I thanked Sean for such a fantastic course.. and accidentally blinded him in the face with my headlamp (sorry Sean!).
All in all this was a wonderful race and I could not recommend it more! I wish I had gone into it under different circumstances but even in my subdued state I enjoyed the beautiful and well-marked course, the ridiculously amazing volunteers and the race experience as a whole. And as always in these races, the camaraderie with fellow runners was terrific – Matt, Elaine, Rocky, firefighter dudes, Lisa, Fred, dude in the green shirt, Trung, Consuela and anyone else I might have missed – I enjoyed running with you all and the sometimes strange conversations we had!
Thank you to my husband Matt for staying up late to help me pack and for supporting me in this nonsense. Thank you to my mom for spending all day in the cold rain just to crew me and make sure I made it home safely. And a huge THANK YOU to my mother and father in law, for personally sponsoring me for the race and supporting me in more ways than I can count. I know you didn’t ask for the recognition but you are a huge part in helping me accomplish my goals and I cannot thank you enough! Can’t wait to go back and explore Cloudland Canyon with you all!