I don’t consider myself a runner, so against better judgement I decided to take on Chattanooga’s mountains and am probably a better man for the experience.
Trail running has a different language. Registration, course maps, and time tables are much looser, almost like the routes themselves. They sort of expect you to figure it out.
I had no hotel, no understanding of where packet pick up was, and absolutely no clue on where the race started. It’s all about trusting that infinite sunshine will guide you to the right place.
And, you know, it works.
On Friday night, I followed my GPS to the packet pick up and landed at Whole Foods in North Chattanooga. I sheepishly walked through produce, avoided the olive-bar temptation, then asked the information desk girl if she knew anything about the race.
She looked at me like I had slithered out of the Tennessee River. “Sir, this is Whole Foods, what are you talking about?”
But I wasn’t as far off my rocker as she thought.
I had typed in Rock/Creek along with a strange address like North 2 or something like that and the GPS pin pointed to Whole Foods. Little did I know, Rock/Creek isn’t a district or a creek called Rock Creek, it is the name of the outdoor store sponsoring the race!
Anyway, registration was two doors down and I got there just in time to hear, “Yeah, they were here but just left 10 minutes ago.” It was from 4 – 7 and I got there at 7:10. So much for loose and laid back trail running!
The employees were super cool and gave me some ideas for rooms, one being the Crash Pad, which I had heard a lot about. Curiosity got the best of me, so I drove into town and plunked $30 on table for the top of a bunk bed.
Essentially, the Crash Pad is a boutique hostel built for endurance athletes, climbers, and general outdoor enthusiasts. It was very clean, had great amenities, and oozed that Chattanooga-laid-back-hipster vibe. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have sleeping disorders like me.
I woke up at 6:30, had a bagel with peanut butter, and prayed my printed directions would get me to the race.
While driving up up the mountain, I noticed my gas tank was on “e” which is always nice. As I turned into the Prentice Cooper State Forest, the first thing I saw was a mobile home with seven pickup trucks in the driveway. Then I barreled by a Big Game Hunting check-in station, followed by a shooting range and deer crossing signs . . . all of which put my mind at ease.
The bumpy gravel gave way to a smooth dirt and I flowed through the dust left by the Subaru wagon in front of me. Empty pine trees lined the road, trying to come back to life as I glanced at the 4X4 truck in my rear view mirror.
The sun rose to my left, but it felt like I was driving north. I had no comprehension of direction, but was on top of a mountain, and that’s always a good place to start.
It was a cold sun and I sacrificed fuel for heat, sitting in my car as long as I could before walking up the road for a 10-mile race on 3 hours sleep. I told myself I would take it easy, as if this was possible in mountainous terrain.
The race began on a gravel road with a short climb to get your blood pumping. The road turned left and was downhill-ish for the next mile or so. I feared I wasn’t ready for this run, so I started in the middle and let people pass me for a while.
Once we hit the single track, I was overwhelmed by the serenity of the setting. I had one eye on the trail and one on the stunning scenery of the valley to my left. The sun rose over the mountains and the river flowed peacefully below. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more beautiful place.
The course was easy to follow, even for a rookie like myself, but it was a continual challenge of climbs and descents, both of which taxed my untrained legs. I walked a lot of the steep uphills and probably walked 2 miles in all.
There was a particularly ridiculous ascent around mile 7 that led to an aid station. I refilled my water bottle, took a deep breath, and kept walking. It was more like hiking at this point, and I knew my 1:45 goal was toast. (I finished around 1:57).
The rolling single tracks continued and were paved with roots, and rocks. At one point there were A LOT of rocks, and I thought I was crossing the infamous “Rock Garden,” but it was yet to come – and there was no mistaking it when it did.
By the time I hit the Rock Garden (around mile 8.5) my biggest concern was injury. My legs were fried and it was literally climbing up and down loose boulders. I’m sure some of the elite runners “ran” this section, but I tip toed with my eye out for little yellow directional flags.
For the last 3 or 4 miles I was running “with” a woman and we took turns leading each other’s pace. At one point she fell and wrenched her ankle. I stopped and made sure she was okay. She was, and toughed it out. It was a team effort of sorts, and while we didn’t speak more than a couple words, I felt that special running bond emerging.
Over the last mile, I found a boost of energy and pulled away, but decided I would wait for her at the finish line for a glorious high-five that would commence our tandem struggle through the brutal terrain. War comrades celebrating joint victory. I stood at the finish line looking for her baby-blue shirt, confident it would be a reunion for the ages. A few minutes later she emerged from the tangled nature. I stood proud, put on my best “great-job-smile” and waited for that powerful hand slap. She ran up to the line in pain, looked in my eyes, then walked right past me and gave my high-five to some other guy.
P.S. This Gu drink is amazing and I will gladly be one of their endorsed athletes. For some reason I wasn’t very sore the next day and I am loosely giving credit to two post-race water bottles of this New Pomegranate/Blueberry Gu Brew.