Mount Cheaha 50K Race Report

Mount Cheaha 50K Finisher - 2008

The Race to the Top of Alabama

I hate the song Sweet Home Alabama.

Growing up in Myrtle Beach, it was always the surfers vs. rednecks, and there wasn’t a single muddy pickup truck in the high school parking lot that wasn’t guilty of rockin’ Sweet Home Alabama on a regular basis. Fast-forward to college and the art of sneaking into bars underage. These small beach bars would always have some straggler dude stuck in dark corner strumming a guitar, and if he wasn’t playin’ American Pie, Brown-eyed Girl, or Freebird …you guessed it, he was beltin’ out Sweet Home Alabama.

That’s the thing about music. It can be very situational, reminding you of things and making you feel a certain way whenever you hear a particular song. Whenever I heard Sweet Home Alabama it made me think of burly 17 year olds, with Fords, full beards, and gun racks, trying to run us down as we pushed down Ocean Boulevard on our skateboards.

Todd Henderson, the race director at the Mount Cheaha 50K, spoke to the group of cold, antsy runners at the starting line of the race, “Guys, I’m not going to say – mark, set, go – just start when you hear the music.”

When the music started, guess what song it was…

Now, you can go ahead and read my overly emotional, way-too-long and excited race report to really get a solid understanding of this race, or if you aren’t that interested in my ramblings, I can sum it up for you in one sentence…

I love the song Sweet Home Alabama.

The Vibe at Packet Pick-up

I rolled into Oxford, Alabama just in time for the pasta dinner at the Bald Rock Lodge. As I drove up the mountain to the lodge, the fog was so incredibly thick that I couldn’t see more than 20 feet in either direction. The mountain was really steep and deer kept dashing across the street, one right after the other, with babies I might add, making me paranoid as hell and afraid I was going to either drive off the side of the mountain, kill some deer, or miss the lodge altogether.

Neither happened and within 30 minutes, I had my race packet, a big plate of spaghetti and salad, and not knowing anyone in the room, I settled down next to an older gentleman and his wife.

Turns out it was the race director’s proud parents.

How cool! I had yet to meet the race director, but here I was learning all kinds of interesting things about him and sharing a meal with his family – I dunno, might sound sorta corny, but I thought it was cool.

Mr. and Mrs. Henderson – you’re a swell couple and I appreciate you making me feel welcome.

Yea, yea, yea – Tell Us About the Race

Ok, well, first of all, as much as I loved Mountain Mist, it’s nomenclature as “Alabama’s Toughest Trail Race” will need to be scrapped for something more accurate – the Mount Cheaha 50K race is definitely more difficult.

Runners are climbing from the very start of this race course which serves as an excellent example of foreshadowing. 

The beginning of the Cheaha race is similar to the beginning of Mountain Mist where runners are forced into a steady, single-file walk/run line trying to find their individual places in the pack.

The beginning terrain had us shuffling slowly and steadily up some really nice switch-backs of soft pine needle-covered trail. It’s an easy, pleasant way to begin a 31 mile trek through the mountains.

Caught Chatting by a Choo Choo Train

Rats. Why do I have to talk so much?

Running into the first aid station at mile 3.5, I am chatting away with a super nice female runner, and just as we approach the volunteers at the aid station, a train passes…

…and passes…

…and passes.

I think we waited about ten minutes for the last car of that train to finally pass. Once the train had moved on, so did we.

I kind of liked the train. It was yet another unexpected obstacle in the ultra experience.

Pinhoti Must Mean “Up” in American Indian Language

Pinhoti Trail Marker

After a short stint along a gnarly jeep road incline, we entered the Pinhoti Trail, and as expected, started climbing.

I could still hear people complaining about the train interruption and I just didn’t understand it – I wanted to say, “dude, you’re back here with us, the mid-packers and back-of-the-packers, did you think you had a shot at winning this race?”

But I didn’t.

Wanted to, but didn’t…

I did, however, make a solid surge ahead to get away from the negative chatter. I will never, ever understand negativity in an ultra …take up golf.

This first climb through the Pinhoti was awesome. The trail itself was raw with lots of little creeks, thin passes and of course, rocks. Even with the thick, ominous fog, the views from the beginning of the trail were incredible. I never realized there were such awesome mountain ranges in Alabama and you could see all of them.

There was a good 40 minutes of pleasant running here and about 1/2 mile from the first summit to the jeep roads, the trail cut through some really technical rock outcroppings which would serve as an early indication of the challenges waiting for us ahead.

It Wouldn’t Be an Ultra If There Wasn’t Blood

…or bruises or blisters or all three. If I was ever to give any practical advice about this race it would simply be to watch where you are stepping.

Because I fall a lot, I sometimes think it’s just me.

At Mount Cheaha, it’s wasn’t just me.

Sure, I fell- a bunch o’ times – and in fact, smashed every one of my Succeed electrolyte caps, leaving me with nothing but a baggie full of salt; but, all that pales in comparison to the spill I saw Steve-O, a fellow Atlanta GUTS member, and amazing downhill runner, take on those jeep roads.

Man… this guy kicked a rock, went almost horizontal in the air about four feet off the ground …flipped 360, and landed square on his back, knocking the wind right out o’ him.

It was gnarly.

Just a mean, nasty sound …like a sack of potatoes, and that jeep road isn’t exactly smooth – there are jagged rocks all over it.

I would have cried – Steve kept running.

{Steve-O, I hope you don’t mind me tellin’ that, but wow – that was sumin’ else.}

“…we added some single track”

Ha ha ha. I guess the joke was on us. Apparently last year, the jeep road portion was a lot longer, but this year, the decision was made to remove some of that jeep road and add single-track, which made lots of people happier. As ultra runners, we love us some single track.

But, as seems to be the case with anything “Pinhoti”, the additional portion of single track turned out to be a section of very steep switch-backs with a handful of false summits.

“Cool, we’re at the top…”

Round the corner, “oh, no we’re not”

“Now, this has got to be the top”,

Turn another corner,


All of sudden, that easy, rolling jeep road was sounding kinda nice.

One of the many creeks at the Mount Cheaha 50KNow, this is where I tip my hat to a guy I met on the trail named Kevin Hatfield. I have never met Kevin before, but a little while after reaching the top of the new Pinhoti section, I realized Steve was no longer with me, but Kevin and I sorta quietly and unintentionally buddied up and took off running strong through some of the most interesting and challenging sections of the race.

I don’t know where the energy came from, but it seems it hit us both at the same time. The terrain was nasty, but o-so-fun, with slippery, leaf-hidden loose rocks, and cambered, tight, thin trail, and we moved through it all like we were made for the stuff. Together, I think we passed over fifteen people from aid station two to aid station three.

It’s possible a lot people went out too fast and took a beating on that newly added single-track section.

After Kevin and I left aid station three, dancing across a ridiculously rocky section, I took a horrible fall. You know it’s a bad fall when the guy you are running with says, “I am so sorry…” – like he expected me to turn around, walk back to the aid station and drop out of the race.

It hurt bad.

For three seconds, …ok, maybe four, I considered it – but then, I thought back to a recent interview with Michelle Barton where she says, “DNF?”, “I don’t recommend DNFing”

…I knew exactly what she meant.

I just mumbled that I didn’t want to talk about it and kept moving.

We ran together for a really long time. Hearing him constantly behind me was a great pacing technique and kept me running all the way to aid station four.

Running Alone

I’m a little blurry and I am not sure where or if I pulled away from Kevin, or he pulled away from me, and I’m not even sure if I’m getting all the aid stations right, but between aid stations three and five, were some really magical, awe-inspiring portions of trail – albeit tough, rocky and ankle-straining.

This was my favorite part of the race.

’tis I, crossing one of the many creek crossings
Me crossing one of the many creek crossings. This was a more tame one.
Photo by: Leigh

I was busting down beautiful descents, splashing through creek crossings and galloping through lush, greenery and moss covered rocks. There were long stretches of ridge that would cut left-n-right, take short ups-n-downs, and camber just enough to make sure your ankles were gettin’ a good stretchin’.

Much of the trail in this section was a little overgrown, scrapping the legs with briars and branches and keeping you well aware that you’re trail running; And to cap this section off, just before aid station five, at the 22 mile mark, was a refreshing, waist-high creek crossing complete with rapids, a stability assistance rope, and some slippery rocks to navigate.

I loved that – Stuff only an ultrarunner could love.

A Mountain in the Clouds

After about mile 26, the trail dumps runners out onto a long stretch of hard-packed dirt road. In this section you can see some of the others ahead of you, I was determined to pass at least one person. I set my sights on the dude in the red shirt and picked up the shuffling…

…but along the way, I saw another GUTS member, one of the speedy ones, walking along picking up trash from the trail. I didn’t know what was going on because usually dude would already be resting at the finish, most likely glowing from some kind of insanely fast finish time. I figured he might be having some kind of problem, and I didn’t want to bring it up, so I just chatted him up for a second or two and kept on moving.

After the jeep road, runners are forced to endure some concrete. This is some nasty concrete. It’s not even smooth road but jagged concrete. Ever seen road like this?

Me neither.

And while I don’t really like running on the road, at least on the road you can run 100% brain-dead. You don’t have to pay attention to each and every step and worry that if you look away for even a second, to take drink for example, that you may fall flat on your face. After staring intently at the ground for 6 hours, this was kinda nice.

The highlight of this winding section of road was definitely the majestic view of Mount Cheaha.

Rounding one of the turns on that ragged road, BOOM, there it is …rising up from the horizon. So high up that you couldn’t even see the top. About 1/8 of the mountaintop was either up in the clouds or covered by fog.

That view is really nice. …that is, until you realize that seeing that means you are very close to the 28th mile aid station…

…which is even closer to the infamous, extremely brutal climb up to the top of that very same mountain – Mount Cheaha – The highest point in Alabama.

I was both excited and a little frightened.

Quick nod to the aid station dude at mile 28. I think he could tell that I was feeling like death, and he was incredibly energetic, funny, inspirational and helpful. Whoever you were bro – thanks.

Blue Hell

Hey, that’s what its called. I didn’t name it. If I would have named it, it would be called, “No way”.

There are lots of warnings about this climb posted all over the trail.

That’s not a good sign, but I ran from the trailhead anyway and just waited, with baited breath, for some sort of indication of craziness.

That took all of about five minutes.

The trail begins this sick ascent into a dark, sorta cavernous, limb covered “cove”. The roots are like steps, but they are insanely steep. There are many times where I needed to use my hands, and nearby trees, to hoist myself up to the next section of roots.

You go from creek level, to barely able to hear the rushing water, in about ten minutes.

Crazy steep.

Crazy technical.

Every bit as brutal as everyone said it would be.

There is a section of brief …and I mean, brief, reprieve where the trail is only, what? 20% incline? But the problem here is that all this does is give the runner a fantastic view of just how high you have yet to climb, and a glimpse at the terrain on which you get to do it. I think this upcoming nasty section of Blue Hell is referred to as, “boulders”.

I don’t even know what to say about this. If you’ve run, or heard, about “waterline” at Mountain Mist, you know it’s hard, right?

This much harder.

You are presented with a boulder field. There’s really no discernible trail on these rocks, and if there is, I was way too delirious to figure it out – thank God for the orange flags marking the course.

If there were no flags indicating a direction, I would have had no idea which way to go.

We were climbing and crawling …sweating and swaggering …huffing and puffing …and in my case, grumbling like crazy, nursing my calves and praying that they didn’t seize up while I’m stuck on this vertical pile of big ol’ rocks.

…I had to stop a “head-phoned” girl from veering off in the wrong direction. She was rockin’ out, and headed out, …off to oblivion…

She almost never heard me.

My heart was doing weird things. My breathing was all over the place and my calves threatened me with every single over-stretched step. How long could this possibly go on?

You want to know how you can tell when you are at a very difficult and challenging section? When various volunteers, friends, runners’ kids, race volunteers, ham radio operators, etc… can all be found at some point, and at various places along the difficult section, watching the runners go through hell and offering tidbits of advice.

“You’re looking great!” …when you aren’t

“You’re almost there!” …when you’re not. Well, to them you’re almost there because that mile they walked to find this spot was on fresh legs; But, to you, one more section is another test of will.

“Keep it up!” …like I have a choice.

But of course they all have your best interest at heart and it’s a perfect example of how ultrarunning is such a wonderfully supportive community.

It’s over …or is it?

After summiting Blue Hell, we’re dumped onto the road at the top of Mount Cheaha. Naturally, it’s an uphill climb on that road, but at least it’s brain-dead road running.

I kept hearing people talking and singing, so I thought I was seconds from finishing just around the bend…

…nope, just some young kids partying.

Instead, the flags pointed back to the trail.

…and even more climbing.

“Ok, now”, I thought aloud, “This is enough. I get it…”

…and then, you’re dumped back on another road headed to the final section of trail.

The final bit o’ trail was really nice. It was mostly downhill, easy running and I took full advantage. After all that climbing, it was like a gift. I knew I had to be close, so I tore it up. Pain be damned, I ran as hard as I could …although I’m sure it was more effort than output, and to anyone watching my attempt at a final sprint, it was probably pretty funny.

When the Race Director Shakes Your Hand

I realize it’s not always possible, but it sure makes an impact when the race director is there to shake your hand at the finish of a grueling race. In some small way, it creates a moment of bonding where you both share a stoke from opposite perspectives. The race director shared his passion to design, implement, and execute a quality race plan …and you, ran the crap out of it and came away just a little bit different as a person than you were just hours before.

Both runner and RD – stoked with a finish.

I loved the Mount Cheaha 50K. Next to Laural Valley, it is now the second most difficult course in which I have run to date.

I know you’re probably thinking,

“hmmm… does this dude ever had a bad race?”

“All he ever writes is stoked about this”, or “I loved that”, or “I can’t wait to go back” …but it’s all true. The more races I run, the deeper my appreciation for the sport.

You know how you feel when you finish reading a book? You always feel just a little bit smarter…?

When I run ultras, I always come away feeling a little more emotional, a little more in touch with myself, and a whole lot stronger.

And hey – If I ever travel somewhere, stay the night, get up at 3:00 a.m. and run 30-100 miles and don’t get something out of it? That’s when I’ll stop doing it.

Right then and there.

Christian finishes the 2008 Mount Cheaha 50K as a tired, beaten man

Shout Outs

Since this is probably the longest race report I’ve ever written, I might as well add more… There are people that stand out to me during this race experience and I want to shout out to them …just maybe, they’ll stubble upon this blog and see what an impact they had:

  • Todd Henderson – Dude, you’re just a cool guy. Thanks for being there to shake my hand at the finish. Thank you for the writing-style compliments, and thank you for putting on a top-notch, high-class race with the best crew and volunteers a runner could ask for.
  • GUTS Tony – I enjoyed your company and was inspired by your decision to run sick. No fear brother. Congratulations on a solid finish.
  • GUTS Steve – Because you’re always a great guy to run with …and to try to keep up with on the downs. You’ve got those descents wired.
  • Kevin Hatfield – Nice to meet ya, brutha. Thanks for pushing me through that Pinhoti section. I don’t get to pass people that often, and well, we passed a bunch as a duo.
  • Dude sittin’ next to me on the bus – Bro, I can’t remember your name, but your knowledge of weight training, and nutrition was interesting. You’re a cool, unique dude.
  • Dwayne Satterfield – Since I’ve fallen into this sport I have always admired your ability. Getting to meet you and “talk shop” was very cool for me – Good luck at the 12-hour in Decatur, AL.
  • Sally and Marty – You two are so freakin’ fast that you could finish the race, watch a full length feature film, nap, and then reappear to watch some of us slower folk finish… but, you don’t. You’re always there to make all the GUTS runners, and others, feel good – from the speedsters, to the back-of-the-packers, and it’s pretty damn cool, much recognized and very appreciated.
  • Lone Star Steakhouse behind the hotel – ’cause dudes with muscles can’t live on spaghetti alone. {wink}

Here’s hoping everyone reading this gets a little Sweet Home Alabama in 2009.

My First 100 Mile Race

September 8, 2008

RACE UPDATE: Oh my God, I did it!

Superior Sawtooth 100 Race Report – Be prepared for a story.


The Background Behind the Race

Superior Hiking TrailI signed up for my first 100 mile trail race, the Superior Sawtooth 100 Mile, along the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota. I simply couldn’t hold back any longer. One hundred miles is my dream race and all it took was a little motivation from some others in the sport, and I committed.

Here is the course description from the race web site:

The Superior Sawtooth 100 Mile Trail Run is a point-to-point, 100% trail run, starting at the Gooseberry Falls State Park Visitors’ Center, and finishing near Caribou Highlands Lodge in Lutsen. Runners will have access to fourteen aid stations between the start and finish, and will never go more than 10 miles without an opportunity for aid. More than 99% of the course is on the Superior Hiking Trail.

I am so excited, I can barely sleep at night.

Superior Hiking TrailThese are all the elements of a trail race that I love so much. I love gnarly and difficult and this race has a reputation for being one tough race with lots and lots of technical trail to negotiate over the entire hundred miles.

One hundred miles. I can’t believe I am gonna give it a shot – But I am.

Why I am choosing Superior Sawtooth 100 Mile

When something just feels right, you know it. I chose this race for many reasons, all of which seemed to fit perfectly into my ultra infatuation.

  • The race is 100% trail – Road races are ok, but nothing is like running in the trails with all the serenity, nature and potential wildlife sightings. The trails are magical for me. Most trail races have portions that are run along roads, or portions that are run on terrain that is similar to the road. I like that this race is all trail, all the time.
  • It’s point-to-point – For me, loop courses have no draw. Now, if it’s a timed event, and the goal is to get as many loops as possible in a given time period, ok; but, for long ultras, I enjoy running from point A to point B …city to city …state to state, whatever, It’s the journey that is a big part of the race for me.
  • Generous cut-offs – I was heart-broken at the Mountain Masochist 50-Mile Trail Race when I missed the cut-offs. I was rebounding and I wanted to continue to the finish. The Superior Sawtooth has a 36-hour cut-off for the 100 miles and I am confident that if I can keep moving that long, I can cover the miles in this race.
  • Stunning scenery and nature – This race is known for having some of the most beautiful trails in all of ultraruning.
  • The course is tough – I love it tough. I like roots and rocks and steep uphills and hairy downhills. Taking a line from NWA – “If it a’int rough, it ain’t me” – I am excited for the rugged, difficult course. To me, that’s a component to what ultramarathons are all about.
  • Low-key – Last year, there were only 36 entrants and 25 finishers – one of which being Susan Donnelly, a racer I admire immensely. That sort of personal journey, with only a select few, is very appealing.
  • The timing works – The race fits in perfectly with the rest of my 2008 race schedule.
  • I’ve never been to Minnesota – I’ve been a lot of places, but I have never been to Minnesota. All I ever hear is how raw and beautiful it is there, and I can’t wait.

So there it is. My first 100 miler will commence on September 5, 2008

Wish me luck.

Red Top Rumble Race Report {sorta}

Red Top Rumble 11.5 mile trail race at Red Top MountainI was all excited about the Red Top Rumble.

The 1st annual race was to be held at some beautiful trails in and around Red Top Mountain and Lake Allatoona in the North Georgia mountains. I had participated in a training run on the race course back in January and even spent some time with the GUTS group doing a little trail maintenance as a way to support the group and the inaugural event.

Furthermore, the race was just two weeks after the Mountain Mist 50K, making it the perfect recovery run right smack-dab in the middle between finishing Mountain Mist and getting ready for the Mount Cheaha 50K at the end of the month.

I haven’t forgotten that I’m slow, but I expected to do well.

But Along Came Bronchitis and Sat Down Inside Me

Two days after the Mist, I got bronchitis. Not a little cough, bronchitis… but a nasty-hack, deep gurgle in the chest, keep-my-wife-up-all-night, sweating bronchitis.

You know it’s not good when the doctor tells you, “wow, you’ve got it really bad”, and increases your Prednisone corticosteroid dose from 20mg to 50mg and gives you not one, but two, inhalers plus a bottle of narcotic cough syrup.

In fact, anytime a doctor says, “wow” – it’s time to panic.
Running with bronchitis is no fun
Everyone told me not to run; but I don’t listen.

I even posed the question on a very active ultrarunning email group in which I participate, and everyone, far more experienced than me I might add, said some sort of flavor of, “don’t be an idiot – heal first, train later”

But who thinks they’re superman? Who thinks that somehow these known truths don’t apply to him? Who has to touch the stove to see if it’s hot? — yep, me.

I don’t even know why I ask – I won’t listen. Maybe, deep down, I am hoping someone is as screwed up in the mind as me and will say, “ahh, fuh’get about it – you can run – no worries – don’t worry about a little bit o’ bronchitis – child’s play”

Nobody did.

Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead

So this morning, it was business as usual. Up early, scarf some oatmeal, slam some coffee, throw on some running threads, a hat backwards, and grab the ratty, muddy trail shoes and head to Red Top Mountain. It’s time to race.

I’m only coughing every ten minutes now instead of five and I mean, come’on, it’s only a little less than 12 miles. I know the course. How hard can it be?

I’m such an idiot.

Within 3/4 of a mile, I knew I was in trouble.

“Why do I feel like I have an expanded balloon in my chest?”

“Oh *&^! – I can’t breath”

It was the weirdest thing. I felt strong. My legs felt strong, my core felt strong and I had energy – but the engine wouldn’t put out any steam. I couldn’t breath and I was not getting enough oxygen to my muscles. They started getting achy. Knees started to ache – and my knees never really ache.

My quads were twitching.

“Why are my freakin quads twitching ??? – man, I wish I could catch a breath”

This kept on for about six miles, and for the first time during any race, I wasn’t having fun. I was getting angry and frustrated – even a little embarrassed as people just passed me like I was standing still – and there was nothing I could do about it. I was in slow motion and breathing like Darth Vader. The angrier and more frustrated I became, the greater effect the poor breathing was having on me – both physically and mentally.

I started walking.

Finding Peace in Acceptance

I had a choice. I could drop …but, I just don’t see me ever dropping a race. Too much stupid pride.

I decided to get a grip and come to the realization that, “dude, you’re sick” – and I decided that at least I was outside, on the trails, in the mountains, and it was gorgeous. Why not find a way to enjoy myself in other ways?

So I did just that.

I spent time sitting on a rock, watching some dude in the lake struggle with his boat. I contemplated helping him – I sure wasn’t doing much else – why not? …but I didn’t. I figured part of the resolution of finishing was a commitment to keep moving forward.

After six miles of running in agony, I started walking any time that I felt winded. I came across lots of dogs and spent lots of time petting dogs. I love dogs, and these periods of loving the dogs was good for my pouty spirit. It kept my mind off the frustration and disappointment.

At one point, after the 8 mile aid station, I just plopped down in the dirt with a race volunteer’s dog and shared my cup of water with him. I spent about 10 minutes sitting there, chatting up with the owner and lovin’ on the hound. My lungs were hurting, but my heart felt good. {wink}

All the walking helped me recover better than expected and I decided to just get this “race” over with.

I crossed the finish line in 2:12:45, which considering the amount of lallygagging I did, doesn’t seem too terribly awful; but it is. It’s bad. Really bad. I wanted to do so much better.

I got dressed in warm clothes, grabbed my bag, a green tea soda and just left.

Oh yea – The Race Itself

Jaydene, the race director for the Red Top Rumble, is probably one of the most pleasant people on the planet. I’m not sure, but I think this was her first event as race director, and whether it was or not, she knocked it out of the park.

The course is great. It’s a tricky course in that you walk away from it thinking it’s not that hard, but somehow when you are running it, hills continue to present themselves in challenging ways. The hills are never very long, but they can be steep and just long enough to have you gasping by the summit. The three mile loop after the 5.7 mile aid station, is definitely the most challenging and requires the runner to dig deep to perform well.

I think one of the most forgiving elements of the course is the generous amount of downhill running. Sure, you have hills – but it goes both ways – and it’s nice to get some relief to go along with all the climbing.

The organization was top-notch and there was no shortage of anything. Tons of aid station volunteers, tons of logistic volunteers, plenty of food, water, electrolyte drinks and of course, top-notch swag.

GUTS did it again.