It’s not everyday you get to walk on water. One unique feature of the Cummins Falls Half Marathon is the innovative kayak bridge pictured below, where you get to do just that. The bridge consists of multiple kayaks strategically tied to one another to make pontoons for the plywood boards overhead. My friend Sarah and I were course sweepers for the full marathon but we made a quick side trip to check it out for ourselves. IT WAS EPIC. Sarah and I tend to stick to trail races, and by that I mean we are full on trail snobs, and we both agreed that we would run this race again. The course was beautiful, the aid stations were frequent and well stocked, the shirts were actually nice and the after party was catered by Outback Steakhouse and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce who apparently know how to cook some fine chicken. The best part, though, is that the money earned from this race actually goes back to the park. The Friend’s Group that puts the race on plans to use the money to purchase additional land to protect Cummins Falls. How cool is that?
The night before the race, my family stayed in the cabins at Edgar Evins State Park, just 30 minutes from Cummins Falls. My in-laws were going to watch my two kiddos, my husband Matt would help at the race wherever needed and Sarah and I would be “sweeping” the back of the pack, making sure no one was left behind while also picking up course signs and accidental trash. This kind of thing is our twisted idea of fun.
The start of the race was abuzz with excited runners, park rangers from around the state and interestingly, Tennessee Tech cheerleaders. When the race kicked off, we hugged Smokey the Bear for warmth and hung around waiting for stragglers who might have missed the start. Like a mother with a restless child, Sarah chided me to be patient and eventually relented permission for us to get out there. We discreetly tailed the final marathoners along the course and let the volunteers know that we were last ones through until the 5k and 10k. The aid stations were plentiful, each with a group of happy and helpful volunteers and plenty of food and water, even for us at the back of the pack. Not to set the bar too high for next year, but those aid station bananas were the best I’ve had in awhile, they were perfect. For those of you weirdos like me who are curious about bathrooms, there were at least 6 along the course resourcefully located at unique locations – a volunteer’s house, a rented port-a-john, an actual outhouse, a civic center, and a church bathroom. I wasn’t brave enough to use the outhouse but it was interesting to say the least. There was very little road traffic through much of the race, the majority of the cars that passed by were aid station volunteers and rangers checking on runners and finding things to help out with. We even got to see my husband a few times.
As we ran, Sarah and I relentlessly made fun of each other as friends do, with her pointing out my unchanging habit of wearing gray while I ridiculed her deliberate lack of socks. No seriously guys, she ran the entire marathon without socks. I also made fun of her mittens, my view being that gloves are undeniably superior (except in the case of small children) and we debated this topic until the best thing happened… when she tried to use air quotes in conversation while wearing mittens. I urge you to put your hands in mitten position and try to make air quotes. If this doesn’t make you chuckle, I don’t know what will.
We continued our dorky conversations as we enjoyed the beautiful country roads. Soon enough, the half marathon course split off the full marathon course across the epic kayak bridge over the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River. It was much sturdier then you would expect, even when running across. Then we got back out on the course, now with Ranger Nat behind us in a ranger vehicle. At some point, the rangers asked us to run ahead to the next runner since the patrol vehicle would be able to drive behind the very last runner. We felt exceptionally useless so we fought over who would get to pick up pieces of trash. To pass the time we held discussions about whether or not one could survive jumping from different vantage points into the river. We also played “sticks” at every bridge we crossed over.. and I learned that Sarah is much better at that game than me.
We ended up behind a runner named Don who I later found out was 85 years young. He stopped to talk to some people who were working outside and I thought that he might be asking for directions so Sarah and I approached him to ask if he’d like to look at our map. We stood there talking for awhile and he urged us to go ahead of him. I tried to explain that we were the sweepers and he laughed and said, “Oh you guys are ‘Sneakers’ huh?” At each aid station we would learn a little more about him. He told us he had run over 140 marathons. He was friends with the woman behind us, Cathy, who was completing her 360th marathon! It was pretty humbling to be following the footsteps of such accomplished runners!
At some point we talked to Jeremy Vaden who works as a Ranger at Cummins Falls State Park and used to be my husband’s supervisor back in the day when they worked at Burgess Falls. Vaden was going to relieve Nat of tailing duties and we suggested that they both take lunch so we could feel useful again. Sarah and I resumed our post at the back of the line and continued onward. We were excited to finally get to see the course’s monster hill (something is definitely wrong with us). I played it off like the hill wasn’t that bad but I was also glad that I didn’t have to run up it, especially since this was 17 miles in. Painted onto the road was a relatable frowny face with X’s for eyes, which is how I would have felt had I been running.
As course sweepers, the race signs and trash we picked up along the course became tokens of our usefulness. We sprinted at the first sight of course signs, and we pushed, we tricked and we bargained in an attempt to have the most. Then a ranger vehicle would stop by, we would drop off what signs we had and the cycle would start again. At one point, Sarah had picked up several discarded gel packets in a row so I was pretty excited when I saw the glimmer of one on the road that she hadn’t noticed. I reveled in my victory as I reached for the shiny package.. until I saw that it was in fact a condom wrapper. I yelped in disgust and threw it back down as Sarah laughed and laughed. At the next aid station I doused myself in hand sanitizer and vowed never to use my left hand again.
Somewhere around mile 23, Matt stopped by with two steaks for Sarah and me (he is seriously the best). We literally stood there on the side of the road with steaks in hand, juices dripping down our face as cars passed by. It was a beautiful moment.
We got back on the course with full bellies and our legs feeling the hours spent on the road. Soon enough we picked up the half marathon sign for mile 12 which we assumed meant we were just a mile from the finish. Unfortunately the full marathoners were only at mile 24, still two miles to go as the race literally throws you for a loop right near the finish line. The final miles of any marathon are tough but this would have been a mental hurdle for sure had we been racing it.
We passed the final aid station where at an adorable puppy had wandered. I petted him and loved on him and came to the conclusion that puppy aid stations should definitely be a thing! You wouldn’t be able to leave in a sour mood. Then again, you might not be able to leave at all.
We finished up the last little stretch and rounded the corner to the finish. Many had packed up and gone at this point but park manager Ray Cutcher waited at the finish to congratulate Cathy as she came in. I was glad to speak with her. She told me that she had completed the race in honor of a colleague of hers that had passed away. His goal was to run a marathon in every state and she has been finishing up the states that he didn’t get the chance to do. I only hope to be so awesome when I grow up.
I am obviously biased since I love State Parks and the Friend’s Groups that support them, but this race was wonderful in its own right. If you are trying to decide if you should do this one, listen to the wise words from Nike and JUST DO IT. If you can’t decide between the half marathon and the full, I vote that you sign up for the half so that you get a chance to run across the kayak bridge. I definitely recommend visiting Cummins Falls State Park the day before the race so you get a chance to hike the easy half mile trail to the overlook of the falls and see what you are helping to protect.
Thank you to Ray Cutcher and the Friends of Cummins Falls State Park for putting on a great race and letting me be a part of it! Thanks to my friend Sarah for driving 6 hours to run and play sticks with me. And finally, thank you to my parents-inlaw for having a blast with my kids so that I could spend a day doing something I love!