A few days ago I closed the 2018 racing season at the Chattanooga 50-miler, a beautiful but highly technical course made even more difficult by constant rain before and during the start of the race.
In fact, when the shuttle dropped us off at the start of the point-to-point race, the approximately 120 runners were greeted with driving rain and 20-mph winds. While rain had been predicted to pelt us throughout the day, it eventually let up. I would say that it rained for about 50 to 60 percent of the time I was on the course that stretched from Covenant College to Cloudland Canyon State Park in Rising Fawn, Ga.
While race director Sean “Run Bum” Blanton told us that there were no creek crossings, much of the course had turned into a creek. Not deep but an unrelenting mix of mud and water.
The 50-milers started about a day after the 100-milers set out on their journeys, so we literally trudged through their footsteps around the state park. I was grateful that my Squirrel's Nut Butter kept me from chafing or having a blister pop up.
What we could see of the scenery was amazing. My favorite part was the large waterfall around the 8ish mile mark of the 50-mile event. Later on during the race, overlooking the canyon from up high was impressive as well.
Also impressive was the work by the Run Bum for creating and expertly marking a dynamic course, the regular communication to racers via email and social media, and putting together an amazing group of volunteers. But he went well beyond that.
Last year, I won a free entry to the race from a contest put on by the East Coast Trail and Ultra Runners podcast. I was unable to go because of a prior commitment but Blanton allowed me to defer it to 2018 without hesitation.
The race also makes excellent use of technology.
The course was on the TrailRunProject app, which Blanton recommended all runners download. While the course was very well marked, there were two occasions when I needed reassurance that I was on the right trail. Both times I paused to grab my phone and check the app to make sure I was in the right location, but in each case as the app was loading I saw a pink flag ahead, letting me know I was in the right place. Even in the challenging conditions, it was difficult to get lost, thanks to the course markings and technology backup.
Blanton also uses LiveTrail technology to allow the tracking of runners. He’s the only United States race director to use this app/website, which is used by UTMB and other European races. It worked really well as my friends and family tracked my progress throughout the day.
Overall, I finished in 10:47:58, good enough for 24th overall out of 81 finishers, while 40 others had DNFs. I was first in my age group. Not bad for training in flat Indiana for a race with nearly 5,000 feet of elevation gain.
Run, learn, adjust, repeat
The Chattanooga 50 was my sixth ultra, split evenly between 50K and 50-milers, though Blanton’s race measures closer to 46ish, as he would say.
It’s been quite a learning experience since I first toed the line at a race beyond the marathon distance. Here are a half-dozen things I learned during my most recent ultra:
1. Don’t wimp out. If the forecast calls for rain and misery on your weekend long run day, don’t rearrange your schedule if another day’s forecast looks more pleasing. Not only would a long run in the rain have been good training it would have indicated that my waterproof jacket may not have really been waterproof, at least in torrential rains. My jacket did OK but upon returning home I invested in an even better running jacket that should protect against hard rain.
2. Hills, hills and more hills. During the race, I was regretting not incorporating enough hill repeats or treadmill power hiking into my training. That approach helped me prepare for the Leadville Marathon last year and it would have better prepared me for the constant climbs at Chattanooga.
3. Keep moving. There were plenty of aid stations, all but one was about 5-7 miles from the previous one. Knowing there were many hills that required walking, I used them to do the bulk of my eating. That saved time from staying too long at aid stations.
4. Prep for injury flareups. I had been dealing with a tendon issue near my right knee. The taper period helped calm it down and it felt good at the start of the race. But after leaving the Mile 14 aid station, my run-walk turned into a hobble-hobble. I regretted not training with the knee taped, or bringing KT Tape with me. I managed to work through the pain but am paying for it now with a swollen knee.
5. Put phone in airplane mode. At the start of the race, I thought I had put my phone in airplane mode. My plan was to start listening to podcasts an hour or two into the race, and then see how my battery life was doing. However, when I paused about 90 minutes into the race, I noticed my phone was at 40something percent battery. I quickly put it in airplane mode and ended up listening to podcasts and music for about three hours total, mostly toward the end of the race.
6. Embrace perspective. It was a brutal ultra and — after some reflection — I am proud of my performance. During the race, I was swearing off hilly, technical ultras, and telling myself that fast 50Ks and timed events would be more appropriate. In hindsight, better hill training would have provided an even better performance. So maybe, just maybe, bucket-list races like the Leadville 100 or Western States are back in play.