Lookout Mountain 50 Miler Race Report
December 19, 2011
In the past, I’ve described the start of the Lookout Mountain 50 Miler as follows; “The Lookout Mountain 50 Miler has a brutally fast start. People always fly out of the gate like it’s a 5K, not a 50 miler, and you’re left sucking frozen wind, as your eyes tear up from the sting of the cold December air up on Lookout Mountain. You do everything you can to not get dropped before everyone else crashes from their ambitious early efforts, and then the real race begins.” This year was different though, everything was different. One difference for instance, was that I had many friends from Louisville come down to run in the race this year; Jeremy Brown, Rhonda Curry, Jeff Miller, Daniel Delph, and Marcus McElwain. I’ve also gotten to know a lot of the other racers over the last few years, so it continuously gets more and more enjoyable every year to go down to the beautiful mountains surrounding the town of Chattanooga, TN, and catch up on everyone’s past year and make new friends as well while running one of the most pretty 50 miler courses anywhere.
So…back to the differences. This year, after lining up at the start line with hundreds of others, I expected I would once again be chasing others down trying to not let a large gap form as they start the race at speeds which are not maintainable for the duration of the race. During those circumstances, it’s like a tightrope walk, in which you must balance how much energy you’re willing to blow early on in the race, versus how big of a lead you’re willing to let your competition gain, even though you know from research what speeds will most likely win the race, and you can guess they’ll probably crack from their eager efforts. It’s a game of discipline. So I was surprised at the command to “GO!” that I found myself out in front, leading the stampeding heard of runners down Lookout Mountain Highway, before we entered the singletrack trail. (There are a few minutes at the start of the race which are on road to thin the heard before we enter the trail where we’re forced to form a single line…this is also what causes the warp speeds, as we’re all jockeying for position to not get stuck behind slower runners who would maybe be challenging to get around once you’re on the trails…) So, needless to say, I started fast since I was leading the pack to the trailhead, but I was going at MY speed, my pace, as I am a firm believer that in an ultra the only tactic to facilitate success is running your own race from start to finish, although you do have to make accommodations based on your competition…It’s a juggling act.
After the road stretch had thinned us out a bit over the first several minutes of racing, it was time to enter the trail. Johnny Clemons jumped in front of me, so I entered the trail in second place. He took off like a shot, and was soon gone, but I stuck to my guns and let him go, as I knew I was maintaining my fastest maintainable speed. Brian Pickett was immediately behind me, and we had the chance to chat over several miles as we raced to the first aid station at Cravens House, the oldest structure on Lookout Mountain and a piece of civil war history.
The Cravens House aid station is at mile 8, and the top 5 or so of us, all came barreling in exactly one hour, basically shoulder to shoulder, with the exception of Johnny Clemons, who we about to reel in momentarily. A quick bottle change at the aid station and I was back on the trail, without slowing to even a walk really for even a moment.
I was running now with Brian Pickett still, whom I met at the Iron Mountain race back in September, and also with Nick Lewis from Memphis, and I was enjoying good chatter with Nick about the west coast as he lived for a stint in Ashland Oregon and he was knowledgeable on the Tahoe Rim Trail, which was good brain candy to talk about while racing.
Around mile 9 or 10; Nick, Brian, and I caught up to Johnny Clemons who had been running in 1st since entering the trail around mile 1. We exchanged placement for a few miles, and I took the lead for a few seconds, before falling back again upon reaching the 2nd aid station at Reflection Riding Aboretum.
Just before reaching the 2nd aid station at mile 15, the trail runs next to a river, which had flooded over the trail plane, and therefore the trail was completely under water, we had to wade through the mud and muck and nastiness for some adventure. I slipped and fell in the mud, and managed to completely submerge my arm with water bottle attached into a sucking mud hole. Kris Whorton, one of the race directors was at the aid station, and she had some water which I used to clean off my muddy water bottle, and in turn, I fell back to 4th place, as Nick, Brian, and Johnny were now the top three, and I was in 4th.
My plan was take it easy after reaching the Reflection Riding aid station, as immediately following that aid station is the biggest climb on the course. I decided my tactic would be to let them duke it out on the climb, as it was too early in the race in my opinion to start “burning matches”, or use vital energy reserves. I took it slow and easy, yet by the top of the climb, we were all shoulder to shoulder once again. When all 4 of us reached the top of the climb, we all bumbled around a bit trying to find where the course went. I had run the course before, and knew that the course went one way, but upon seeing the others turn left I was confused for a sec before gaining my bearings and going the right. We all corrected our mistake soon enough, and Nick Lewis and I came running into the Covenant College aid station at mile 22.5 in first and second place. I grabbed a quick bottle from Stephanie, as took off, but Johnny Clemons quickly jumped in front of me. Nick was soon with us, and the three of us ran for several miles together discussing pacing strategies as I believe we all wanted to set a new course record. We all shared the lead for a bit, and ran well together. It was shaping up to be one of the most social races I’ve ever run. Usually by the halfway point in a race, 1st through 3rd aren’t all still running together, sharing the lead. It was a blast and I honestly thought the race was still open to any one of us at that point.
We reached the Lula Lake aid station at mile 28 in high spirits, and began the other big climb on the course. At the start of the climb, I jumped off the trail to “take care of some business”, and although my little pit stop only took one minute, Johnny and Nick were gone, and I began to question the timing of my choice. I reached the top of the climb and started to hit my “mental low point” for the race. I let nick and Johnny escape on the super technical climb, and I knew they were both very strong. Nick had taken the lead for a bit before we hit Lula Lake previously so I was wondering if he had just been biding his time waiting for an attack around mile 30 which would have been a smart move.
After a long and lonely stretch, where my attitude was growing a bit negative, I finally reached the Long Branch aid station at mile 34. The trail in between miles 28 and 34 was pretty terrible, due to a tornado that had ripped through earlier this year. For several miles I found myself bobbing and weaving through the trees which had been chainsawed for us. Don’t get me wrong, they had done a ton of work to the trail, and made it as runable as possible, but after running through a very muddy first half of the race, I wanted to find smooth trails to get the pace back up on par with a course record, but with infinite river crossings, muddy trails abound, and bobbing and weaving around the trees on the new stretch of trail in between Lula Lake at mi 28 and Long Branch at mile 34.
When I reached the road which headed up to Long Branch, I saw Nick’s orange shirt, and was glad that he hadn’t escaped too far.
Just like last year, I planned on taking it easy around the 4 mile loop which runners must face before trudging, running, walking, racing or whatever back to the finish line at Covenant College. The 4 mile loop at Long Branch is demoralizing and if you try to attack there, you won’t have much gas left for a strong finish, and those last 12 miles are paramount. Upon completing that 4 mile loop last year, I caught Josh Wheeler and ran those last 12 miles in for my first ultra overall win. This year, upon completing the loop, I started finally feeling good again, and I caught Nick Lewis with 12 miles to go. I knew I felt strong and would be able to run a good final 12 after a strong start and a mid race crash, I was back for a fast finish, but I knew that Johnny was now about 10 minutes ahead.
It was great running back to the start/finish line at Covenant College because the other runners are heading out to Long Branch, so you get to cheer on one another. Everyone kept giving me splits up to Johnny, and it seemed like although I was destroying myself and running a very strong pace, I wasn’t gaining an inch on Johnny.
I could only keep telling myself to keep chasing on the offensive instead of running on the defensive trying to hold my second place. I hoped that by trying to continuously attack in those last 12, I would maybe open up a larger gap back to third, and at least secure my second place finish…It’s a little head game I play…Sometimes if someone is just running to hold their placement, they might start walking climbs, and I wanted to make sure I was attacking the whole time to hopefully catch Johnny.
My efforts were futile. We kept even splits, and he finished 9 minutes ahead of me, but I managed to secure my 2nd place overall finish, with a time of 7 hours 32 minutes, which was 10 minutes faster than last year, on a course which was much harder. Nick came in third about 10 minutes behind me, so my strategy did work at least, I was able to put a larger gap back to third in the last 12 miles which I wanted. David Worth came in 4th and Brian Pickett rounded out 5th. It was talking and catching up with those guys!
Overall the race was a good one, and very different from previous years. I had a good week leading up the race, and even the day before the race was stress free and chill.
The highlight of my race was however, hanging out for several hours and cheering on my friends who all finished. I can’t describe how awesome it was to see Jeremy finish after dealing with some annoying back issues that have almost literally been a monkey on his back not allowing starting a previous ultra. He came in at 9:46 which was great. Marcus, Daniel, Rhonda, and Jeff all did great too and finshed with smiles. I was so glad that after personally witnessing the amount of work the Rhonda and Jeremy put in that the finished with smiles even on a tough course. What a great Christmas present! I think we have a new Christmas Tradition. We all went to a micro brew for dinner and celebrated our big accomplishments!