Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Lookout Mountain 50 Race Report

Stock photo of Lookout Mountain

Me: "Hey Mike, how you feelin' buddy?"
He was noticeably limping.
Mike: "I rolled my ankle bad before mile 20, It hurts like Hell. How you doing?"
Me: "I think I'm done, probably gonna drop here."
Mike: "Don't you {+@&!%& drop Reeves."
He was serious as he began the climb to the trail head to return to Lula Lake.
So was I. 

I intentionally sat on writing this race report for a reason. I felt I needed some perspective that only time would bring. Then the holidays got in the way. It has been a little more than two weeks and it's now time. Why perspective? Because this race, on one hand, was the single worst performance I have ever turned in. And on the other hand it is now one I can hang my hat on. 

The Race

I knew going in that this course would be a challenge. All one needs to reach that conclusion is to read race reports penned by previous contestants. The amount of vertical is respectable and sections of the course are pretty technical. The fact that most would be finishing in the dark just made it all the more interesting. I signed on to join fellow GOATS Mike, Aaron, Dave and David much less as a race and more as an adventure. But those of you that know me realize that is a difficult distinction for my brain to make. I had stuck to my training plan with just a couple of bumps in the road due to an illness and a Thanksgiving trip. My focus 50 is in February at Rocky Raccoon but I "gave" myself this race as my birthday gift. I expected it to be tough mainly due to the distance but had no doubt about finishing. 

Can't take credit for this one either but funny. 

The GOATS met at the start all decked out in our sweet animal print tech shirts ready to go. Mike (Tiger), Aaron (Bald Eagle) and Dave (Wolf) would be off the front and David (Bear) and I (Owl) settled into the back of the crowd. The start/finish sits atop Lookout Mountain on the campus of Covenant College above Chattanooga. My initial reaction to seeing the mountain the day before was "That's a big ass hill." The course would wind down one side of the mountain and eventually back to the top after about 22 miles and then do the same thing on the other side for the final 28 miles. It was chilly and windy which means it was pretty damn cold. I think everyone hid from the wind as long as possible before the start. By the time it all started I was ready to move and warm up. 

(L to R) Mike, Aaron, Dave, me and David (Photo by Mr. Denson)

I won't bore you with a detailed course description, just the memorable highlights. After the gun sounded we ran through campus to the trail head where all had to hit the brakes. You know how that goes. Like trying to fit 10 pounds of sausage into a 5 pound casing. David and I patiently waited our turn and settled into a shuffle along the narrow single track. We covered a good distance along a scenic cliff face that was pretty technical and required vigilance. Eventually we turned down the mountain and began the long descent to the first aid station. Somewhere along the way I lost my wing man but felt the pace was very comfortable for me. I rolled through Craven's House AS (mile 8 and 1h36m) pretty quickly and continued to the next. This section was quite runnable and I continued to feel very settled in and comfortable. At Nature Center AS (mile 15 and 2h57m) I wasted little time, just top off the handheld and grabbed a few pretzels. Leaving the AS I saw some runners on a different trail close to the course. I assumed they were the 10k folks. Less than 100 yards from the AS I turned left up the mountain and some others followed me. I went about 1/2 mile before seeing a photographer. He looked at me and kinda made a funny face. He then informed me he thought I was on the wrong course. Nice. I turned and went back down. Sure enough, I missed a turn. There were course markers but they had all been knocked down into the damp ground. I yelled back to the AS to tell them they had people going off course and to mark the turn better. Just remember, if you are running this race, turn right leaving Nature Center.

That's me and my owl

The next section climbs back to Covenant College. Yes, it is long but most of it is actually runnable. Miles 18 and 19 were the steepest with about 1,000' of vertical gain. I power hiked those and passed a lot of people going up that climb. Too many? Again, I never felt like I hit the red line, I simply moved with purpose while keeping comfortable. I was feeling pretty good as I rolled back to the start/finish and headed for my drop bag. I had covered 22.5 miles so far in about 4.5 hours. I was expecting about 11 hours total for the race so I was OK with that so far. Maybe a little fast so I'd just slow it down on the last leg a bit. I didn't feel as though I had withdrawn too much from the savings account. It was still breezy up there and it didn't take long to get chilled. I grabbed my gels and slurry and packed them away in my belt. Topped off my fluids, ate some grub and then headed out.

Aaron rolling to a Top 40 finish

The course drops to Lula Lake. This is where my body first began to give signs of something amiss. Not to worry as Lula Lake AS is easily the most beautiful spot on the course. I stopped for a few minutes to enjoy the money shot and to try and collect some mojo. At this point I began to know it could be a long day. Leaving here I soon found myself climbing, literally, back up. This is Eagle Cliff and it includes ropes permanently attached to guide a person both up and down the super sketchy, technical portion of trail. The next 4.5 miles includes a healthy dose of climb. Except for the rope section it is neither steep nor technical. It just goes on for a while.  For me, it was a total grind. Along the way to Long Branch I lost my mojo. I'm pretty sure it was in the tornado section of the course. It sucked the life force out of my body. All of those quick changes in direction, elevation and uneven footing worked me over. I began to feel a couple of blisters and my legs were dying quickly. Apparently it was too much for my Garmin as well as it died along the way. As I slogged into Long Branch I saw Mike. He tried to give me a boost but he was obviously fighting his own demon by then. A post race diagnosis of a split peroneal tendon would explain why for him. At the pavilion I saw Aaron and his dad. Aaron looked pretty fresh. I found a volunteer and asked for a refill and then tried to find some grub that looked appealing. I thought maybe a little break and downing some extra calories might help out.  I think I stayed there for about 15 minutes. I'm not sure. And I really didn't care. Eventually I found the muster to carry on. As I was heading out I caught sight of Dave coming back off the loop. He looked a little worked over but still looked better than I must have been looking. On the lollipop back to Long Branch I found myself pretty much alone but I seemed to be moving OK. And it hurt. I had officially found the pain cave. I grabbed on to a group of four that all seemed to know one another and were from the area. I figured that would be a good way to not go off course again. They did all the talking while I just listened. If I had to guess I would say that 4.5 mile loop was about 3.5 miles of net elevation loss before a mile climb back to the AS. I had done a lot of thinking over those few miles. I was done.

Dave representing with the GOAT shirt

I found another volunteer and asked about dropping. As my luck would have it the sag wagon had just left the scene to take a couple of DNFs back to the finish. He said it would be a while before I could catch a ride. I decided to wait and see. I called David. Yes, I had my cell phone. For the first time I had taken it along. This was at the request of Mike Rush. He thought it would be a good idea if we could send updates on our progress to Drew back at Cencom in Bentonville to be posted on the Rush Running Facebook page. So I called David. I'm not sure why. He didn't answer. I had last caught sight of him as I returned to the course at mile 15. A couple of minutes later my phone rang. I told him how I felt. He didn't try to talk me out of it at the time. As best we could tell he was about 30 minutes out or so. I decided that I would sit and wait for him and see how I felt then. So I sat down and began my quiet little pity party. It was then that I heard a voice. It was a volunteer. His name is Jarret Kinder.

My man, David, rockin' the Grizzly

I figured my ride had arrived. He asked me if there was anything he could do for me. Did I need anything to drink or eat? How was I feeling? I told him my quandary. He took my handheld and filled it up for me. He then told me I looked cold (the sun was dropping low). I realized I was cold. Quite cold. He offered up some hot noodles. I accepted. It was good. He then offered up a thick blanket. It was good too. I sat down on a patch of ground and waited. He came back a few minutes later and checked on me. He reminded me that Lula Lake was only 4 miles away. He said he thought I could make it that far no problem. I knew if I did make it there that I would be all in as there was no way I was dropping 8 miles from the finish. Funny what a difference 4 miles makes. I thought about it for another moment. I began to gather my gear and saddle up. I saw the drop bags for my GOAT buddies that had already moved on and I knew they wouldn't be coming back to retrieve their leftovers. I raided them and stashed a few gels and took Mike's leftover Gatorade powder to make my own. Jarret must have seen something. He came over again to give me some last minute mojo. As soon as I took that blanket off I felt cold again. He offered up his jacket. A really nice and cozy Salomon model. He told me to find the RD at the finish and return it to him. Not many folks would just give away a $200 jacket to a total stranger. He did. No questions asked. And then it clicked. By accepting his offer I had to finish. Otherwise I would feel like a total tool. And right on queue David strolled by. He didn't stop. He didn't even say anything. He just gave me a look. A look that said to me that it was time to piss or get off the pot. He turned away and kept moving along the course. Just before dropping out of sight he gave one final look. I hurried to get my belt on. I was all in.

The Bluff Trail (photo by me)

It took me a 1/4 mile or so to catch up and we hit the trail head together. David had been much wiser about pacing and effort. This was not his focus race either. He was using it, much like me, as a training effort for Rocky Raccoon where he will toe the line for 100 miles. We discussed the return to Lula Lake and the setting sun. We wanted to try and make the rope section before dark. We were gonna have to move to get that done. That meant running tornado alley again, back up the big ass hill before dropping to Lula Lake. I pushed as much as I could. It was a slow mix of jogging and walking. David pulled me along. We didn't make it before dark. About a mile from Lula Lake we had no choice but to turn on the head lamps. And that meant navigating down Eagle Cliff in the dark. David fell once. He still owes me a beer.

Lula Lake (photo by me)

Into Lula Lake AS, topped off the bottle, drank some soda and ate some grub. The blazing camp fire there called to me. I stood there for a moment, mesmerized, before turning and heading up the hill. It was a slow grind getting back up there. We power hiked most of the climb and passed some others. About two or three miles out I got some energy from nowhere. I began to run. This was not a jog. It was running. I navigated around some folks on the tight single track along the creek and up the final section to the road. By then I could hear the PA system at the finish. Once again I was all alone and I had an ominous sensation. While going through a parking lot I saw a guy at his car. He looked to already be done for the day. He looked at me and asked if I had already finished. When I answered negative he told me I was off course. I turned and headed back down the road. I could see lights coming up the trail but where did I miss a turn? Almost all the way back to the dirt trail I saw the power lines and recalled my mistake. Remember, after hitting the road near the finish turn left under the power lines. All those folks I had passed the last couple of miles I had to re-pass again. My lamp was fading and there were some wicked washouts along here but I just wanted to be done. Then the Christmas lights along the chute and a short rise to the finish line. My time was 12h40m which was about 2 hours off of my expected time. The first loop took me 4.5 hours for roughly 23 miles. The final 27 miles would require another 8 hours.
The first 30 miles and 6 hours of elevation. Trust me, there's more. 

Here is what I have decided my mistakes were, in no particular order. I was a bit too zealous in my pace for the first loop and didn't stick to my plan of keeping it mellow there. Although I never felt I was pushing myself it was too much for the long haul. The final result would show that. Looking back on my training I realized that it was missing something. I was now worried for RR50. I didn't see the work that would get me where I wanted to be. With help from Mike Rush that issue has been addressed. I really missed the mark in terms of my fueling. I never felt crappy in terms of GI distress or cramps and physically my feet and legs were pretty good. For me it was an energy issue. After adding up what I expended and what I consumed there was too wide a gap. I got behind the 8 ball and stayed there for too long. Early in training I made a decision to hydrate with water only. While that may work for some and even work for me on shorter training runs up to 4-5 hours the proof is in the pudding that for an ultra it does not work for me. My struggle to finish Pumpkin Holler, despite the PR, back in October only proves that more so. I probably missed out on about 100 calories an hour by drinking water instead of something like Gatorade. After several hours that caught up with me. I was terribly bummed at my performance and time. But looking back now I can see that I finished another 50 mile race against the odds. I was really down in the hole at mile 30 and gutted out another 20 miles to finish what I had started. That's what I hang my hat on today. 

Props to Aaron and Dave for finishing strong in their first 50 mile race. Little surprise there as both of those guys are nothing short of horses. Congrats fellas. Respect for Mike as well for pushing aside the pain and besting us all for a legendary run despite the injury. The guy is not afraid to hurt. A special shout out to Jarret from Rock Creek. You provided much more than a warm jacket. I owe you some mojo. To my wing man, David, I owe this finish to you. I was pulled along from Long Branch and back up that hill twice by you. I hope to return the favor tenfold. 

Now for the fluff. Thanks to David's brother, Michael, for opening his house near Nashville to us on the way out and back. It was nice to have a warm, comfortable bed and a place to clean up. Thanks also to Aaron's family who hosted dinner for us Friday night in Dalton. Great grub and lots of laughs. You'd be hard pressed to find a finer group of folks. 
My first ultra in the Hokas and I have to say they did great. The sizing is maybe off a hair (too short) thus the blisters but my feet felt pretty damn good after 50 miles. Balaga wool trail socks all the way, love 'em. Slick by Skin Strong on all the tender bits prevented any chaffing and keep the blisters to a minimum. Super easy to re-apply at the turn, just a couple of quick sprays and I was good to go. The "slurry" fuel (First Endurance) suggested by Luke Nelson worked great. I simply needed more. I wish I had left a refill of it at Long Branch. About 6,300' of vertical, some sections technical but most were pretty good. The Bluff Trail can be tricky but for me tornado alley was the killer. Solid volunteers, good organization and the best swag I have ever seen. A Patagonia tech tee, a nice hoodie, a beer glass, the medal and the RD gave me a sweet Smartwool shirt that I really like. And, yes, I still have the owl shirt. 

The Gag

Gandolf posted this "enhanced" photo of Mike after CP50

Before the race Rock Creek announced via their Facebook page the chance to have a special announcement made for any runner as the finish line was crossed. All you needed to do was send it to them and they would take care of it. I had an idea. I thought us GOATS were worthy of such recognition. I contacted them and offered some insight on the GOATS including nicknames. Furthermore, I had a practical joke in mind for one, Mike Rush. The RD was all over it. Mike dishes it out as well as anyone. And to his credit he takes it just as well. I knew he would be a good sport about it and it might provide some comic relief for us.

Our fearless and slightly off kilter leader, Mike
And his take home souvenir. That's blood under the skin and that's what a split peroneal tendon looks like.

Some reading this may be aware of Mike's effort at Collegiate Peaks earlier this year. He had a tough go of it to say the least. So in Mike's goodie bag a special prize had been placed. It was a package of men's undergarments along with a letter stating that race officials were concerned and thought it best that he consider wearing said garments on race day. It also reminded him that human waste should be deposited away from the trail and water sources. And then as he approached the crowd at the finish line on race day he heard the following over the PA system...
"Now coming down the chute, out of Bentonville, AR is Mike 'Chocolate Thunder' Rush!"  
He was a good sport about it as expected. And for being so tolerant the RD gave him a Salomon pack. 

Descending Eagle Cliff in the dark (photo by ultrarmhc)


  1. Great read RF. My five favorite things about this post:
    5) Ropes to help navigate steep terrain, wow
    4) Animal print tech shirts, gotta get me a panther!
    3) Raiding leftovers from buddies' drop bags, way to be resourceful.
    2) $200 loaner jacket, talk about demo-days!
    1) Chocolate Thunder, I don't even want to know the whole story.

  2. Kevin,

    Thanks for stopping by, you must have been bored.
    5) Yes, that was a first for all of us there. It wasn't long, less than 100m but descending in the dark was a new experience.
    4) Didn't see a panther as a choice but that would be cool.
    3) Gotta do what you gotta do.
    2) That jacket was nice, too warm for me although it saved my bacon.
    1) No, you don't.