Monday, February 10, 2014

Getting Lost (Lookout Mountain 50 mile race report)

Lookout Mountain has a good reputation and is hosted by Rock/Creek, so I decided to fit it onto my schedule this year. It runs along Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, sometimes dropping off the side of the mountain, and has 6300 ft climbing. My training had been minimal since Pinhoti 100 (avg 54 miles per week), so I was conflicted if I wanted to run hard or just relax and have fun. I settled on running reasonably hard as long as I could, then limp home if needed. Jason was going to run it, as well, and we even convinced Barry to come run it as his first 50 mile race ever. Accompanied by Seth, who would crew Barry, we drove to Chattanooga Friday afternoon, listening to my random collection of CD’s (Top Gun soundtrack!), grabbed packets, and ate some nice bbq before settling down for the evening.
In the morning, I went out for my typical pre-breakfast slow mile in nice weather, but the expected inclement weather moved in just as I finished. By the time we left the hotel, it was 40 degrees, pouring rain and windy. Perfect trail running weather (I tend to not worry about the weather, even when it sucks. We all run in the same conditions. And as I told Barry, "Embrace the suck.") I bumped into my running twin at the start (Troy Shelhammer, 4 time finisher and 1 time winner) and then we were off into the dark. The first miles past quickly as the technical trail generally ran along some cliffs, with some rather significant drop-offs at the side of the trail. I was in the front pack-ish, though not too worried about placing. The technical trail ended with several miles of fire road that allowed for some fast running, though this was also the rainiest, windiest weather all run. Eventually, after having run with Troy for many miles, the rain stopped just as we climbed several thousand feet back up to the start line. We crossed the start line/mile 22 aid in 5thand 6th place in 3:06, well ahead of my 3:30 prediction (though accuracy of my pre-race calculator is questionable). We were less than 10 minutes behind the leaders and I felt great, running well within myself.
After a quick stop, Troy and I continued on. We followed some small, yellow flags through a couple of parking lots and under some powerlines, where the wet mud turned very, very sloppy, sticky, and slippery. We could see a runner ahead, Adam, though he was coming back towards us. When we met, he said the flags led him in a circle back to this point. Troy was fairly certain he knew where to go, so we pressed forward, though the flags disappeared so we started guessing a bit. We could see other runners behind us, equally befuddled. Eventually, after 21 minutes of wandering, we found some more flags, followed them down the powerlines and then along a creek. However, we again began to have runners coming towards us on the trail, telling us we were going the wrong way. It ends up these were runners who were 20-30 minutes behind us at mile 22. A critical turn at the start of the parking lot had not been marked for us but was corrected for them. After 10 minutes travelling the wrong way, we turned around again, finally following the proper course. We spent an additional 18 minutes travelling the wrong way and then back, meaning we were off-course for 39 minutes (though this only cost us ~25 min as we skipped a few miles) and had dropped more than 20 places. Needless to say, we were frustrated. 
 Looking for redemption, Adam, Troy and I charged on, quickly passing packs of runners. We caught up to Barry, who was surprised to see me behind, though he, too, had been off-course for 10 minutes. I chatted with him for a few minutes while Troy pulled away. Then, I caught Jason. However, after a long season and a wrong turn, I had lost my drive to race hard. At the next aid station, I stopped for an extra minute to enjoy some gummi bears and soda before continuing on. The course was enjoyable, muddy at points, and had a few very technical sections complete with rope for climbing. I finally reached the loop portion, where Seth helped me change shoes and out of my wet clothes. The loop passed quickly, and I surprised Mitchell Pless as I passed him (I had last seen him at mile 20), then started the last 12 miles back to the finish. Most of the runners were still outbound, so there was plenty of traffic on the trail. I was around 10th place for most of this stretch, though I surprisingly caught Adam, who had slowed a bit. With some last minute leap-frogging, and while managing to stay on course this time (through what was definitely the muddiest part of the course- literal shoe sucking mud, sometimes mid-shin deep), I finally finished in 8:27 in 9th place overall. Troy had fought back valiantly to a 3rd place finish in 8:09. Had we started running the right way when we first met the course, I think top 5 would have been possible for all of us, and maybe a battle for 2nd and 3rd. But, it is what it is. This is the first time I’ve spent more than a few minutes off-course in all my trail racing history, which I consider fairly remarkable. Plus, the wrong turn was due to course markings (which the RD apologized for profusely after the race) rather than us making a mistake. Interestingly, the top woman snuck by while I was off course and no one ever told me she was ahead of me the second half, so I got chicked without even knowing it! But soon Barry finished, followed by Jason, and we had a very muddy, stinky drive home that was highlighted by a good pitstop at the strangest Chick-fil-A I’ve ever seen (toy dwarves in a restaurant?).
All in all, it was an enjoyable day racing. The first half was wet, cold, and enjoyable. I felt good and was running strong. The second half was a bit frustrating, but also a fun time even if I had turned it down a notch. The course was great. I’d be interested to see what I could do when the course was dry and I didn’t get lost. Maybe we’ll have to save that for another year.
(Note: my computer died so I lost all photos and had to write this on my iPad. Sorry for any typos. In the meantime, anyone have a good computer for sale?)