Foothills and Face Plants | A Chattooga 50K Story

Jesus is Lord in South Carolina
photo: Small mountain towns in South Carolina can be “interesting”.

Beautiful but deadly

I bust my @$$ every single time I run in the foothills.

June 7, 2009, I’m sure I busted a record number of times. …at least 15, but one day later, it sure feels like much more.

And I’m not counting the constant half-fall-stumble, catch-yourself-in-some-oddball-way staggering situations. Those were way too numerous to keep track of.

But, man…

When I wasn’t face first in the dirt, I was witnessing some absolutely incredible trail. The Foothills are very much like the Appalachian Trail – Thick roots. Steep climbs. Treacherous footing.

But that just adds to raw-ness of it all. To me, this is how trail running is supposed to be – not manicured and perfect.

The forest was thick with jungle-like vegetation. The rivers were loud, especially now that we have water, and the small, trail side water falls were in full effect. Here’s a full description of the SC Foothills trail from

Perhaps no other trail in South Carolina provides such an extraordinary backcountry experience as the difficult, Foothills Trail in the northwest corner of the state. Starting with the 1.2 mile Foothills Access Trail in Oconee State Park, only the first 28 miles of the Foothills Trail from the park to Upper Whitewater Falls was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979. By snaking along the Blue Ridge Escarpment, this trail and its many connectors provide almost 200 miles of hiking; most of it the rugged Appalachian greenbelt variety. The trail is accessible only to hikers, although vehicular access is available to many points along the main trail which, depending where you start, is either 80 or 85 miles long. Even so, considering numerous spur trails and connectors, an ambitious backpacker could hike the backcountry for more than a week.

In fact, the other side of the trail is where the infamous Laurel Valley is held, yet another beautiful beast.

I’m so lucky that this will be the second year in a row that I get to race a majority of the 80 miles of the SC Foothills in a single year.

Burrells Ford, the start of Chattooga 50K Trail Race

Before the race I was chatting it up with Byron Backer, who is much faster than me, and thought to myself, “just for the heck’uva it, I’m gonna try to run with him in my sight for as long as I possibily can”

After the start, he took off, and I never even saw him again until the turn-around.


So much for that idea – a quick dose of humble pie.

But I did start out fast, running in the first group of about 10 for the first eight miles.

I don’t know why I do this – mental problems?

I get these visions in my head of being a cheetah, like if I just try hard enough, ignore the pain, I can run with some of these front runners.

But all that happens is that I go like crazy for about 10 miles, and then burnout horribly and suffer the rest the of way to the finish.

Love me some river action

I love races that have water involved.

The Chattooga begins along some technical, single-track trail and drops runners down to the river for some extremely technical running. This year, the river was so high, some of the trail was completely underwater and we found ourselves running knee-deep through the Chattooga.

I liked that. It made me grin a lot.

The first 10 miles are run without aid. Since the Chattooga 50K race course is an out-n-back, that really means the first 10 miles, and the last 10 miles are without aid. The first 10? No problem; but, that last 10 miles is much more of a management issue as the need for water and fluids has increased.

There are three sections in the first 10 miles that make it easy to judge your progress. If you plan to run this race next year, you can use these clues to gauge where you are (assuming you run natural, without GPS):

  1. Waterworld: This is where runners are hugging the river, and sometimes running in it. It’s very technical with thousands of thick roots, mud and hairball footing. Enjoy.
  2. Pine straw heaven: This is where you can open up. When the trail moves away from the river, runners are cruising along the tops, and ridges, on wide, soft and less technical pine-needle-covered trail. Yum.
  3. Campgrounds: When the trail drops back down to the water, participants are running through a series of camping spots. This is actually helpful since the trail can get confusing and campers can be a big help. “yea, runners went that way!”

And then it’s just a nice, mellow climb out, crossing SC Hwy 107, and on to the first aid station.

What goes down, comes back up

I forgot how tough this race is.

I don’t know why. It’s run on the same freakin trail as Laurel Valley! Of course it’s gonna be hard.

But the Chattooga deceives you.

It takes you out for a nice little challenging, but easily manageable, run all the way to the turn-around at about 16 miles …with plenty of gradual downhill, forgiving uphill, and false sense of superiority.

After the first aid station, there is a boatload of downhill. Similar to the last six miles of Oak Mountain, but at Chattooga, you gotta come back up after ripping all that downhill. Faster people started to catch me as I really had no business running with the pack I was with in the first place, and I was starting to struggle from the fast starting pace.

This is the section where I met “Stump Jump” Chad from Chattooga, and where he witnessed my super gnarly, body-twistin’, leg-ganking, mid-air assault on a trail side tree.

I think he felt bad for me.

I felt bad for me.

I slowed way down and sorta ran in a daze. Too much ego to admit pain, yet crying like a baby inside.

That really hurt.

So, remember, if your keeping notes – make up time here, between miles 10-16-ish, because things will begin to get ugly very soon after.

Is this the same trail?


It’s more of that Chattooga deception.

After the turn-around, that once fun and fancy downhill action turns upside down. It’s funny how you rarely notice how long a section of downhill is until you are forced to turn around and hit it the other way.

I am confident that some Foothills spirits are at play here. There is simply no way that those climbs back out are the same trails that I just ran in the other direction. Somebody, or something, stretched them into much longer grinds.

So again, taking notes? You had better have your uphill running legs left for at least some of this section, or you will lose a LOT of time getting out of here.

But once you do get out, your return to the 10-mile (now 22 mile) aid station will be a happy visit.

Unless you drop.

Only 10 miles left

10 miles is a long way and should never be referred to as only-anything.

More Chattooga deception.

Actually, maybe not. I think I have this one figured out. The thick roots, rocks and ridiculous footing of the last ten miles were in fact there on the way out, but the legs were strong, fresh and nimble. The ankles solid and adaptable.

Not now.

Everything hurts.

Stepping on those roots now sends a shockwave through your hamstrings and quads. The calves start letting you know they’ve had a enough and are ready for pulled pork sandwiches and a comfy seat at the finish line.

It’s comical navigating some of these roots and muddy sections with sore body parts. Slow, goofy-looking, lots of cussing.

Falling when you feel like this is a complete body jar – too weak to catch yourself, too slow to make it happen anyway.

An all-out thud.

Like a sack potatoes.

But, that beautiful monster smiles on ya with more and more incredible trail beauty. It just keeps coming at ya. Huge ferns, flowering trees, birds a ‘chirpin’ …and long views down the Chattooga are there for the taking on this trip back, and I was stopped in my tracks more than once to stare at the river sights.

I wish I was smart like David Ray and carried a camera during races.

Dunk yo’self

But the all-time, best thing about the return trip is the last 4 miles, where the trail climbs back down to the river’s edge. Ah, heaven.

Picture this:

…and there’s that lovely, crisp, cool river water – rushing over the rocks with a roar, shimmering in the blaring sun. You know it’s in the 80′s. You know you want to do it…

Well, I do it.

Shirt, shoes, shorts, socks, hat, …everything.

I just laid there, in the river, and drank and drank and soaked and soaked.

Bridges too, I’m not a bit scared. If, I see cold rushing mountain water, I enter it.

One mile to go

I always love the kids at races that are there to support dads and moms.

I came up on this bridge, ironically, the place where I got terribly lost last year by going stright instead of crossing, and there’s a little kid sittin’ there waiting on his dad. He hiked about a mile down to the bridge to wait for him.

As I approached, he yelled, “One mile to go!”

And although I was unable to let out much more than a grunt, it was a discernible “thank you” grunt.

I could tell he felt helpful with his big ol’ smile, so I found a little more energy to thank him for helping all the runners out.

Cool kid.

The finish

2009 Chattooga 50K finisher awards
photo: RD, Terri Hayes makes custom finisher awards for everyone.

Nothing clever. Nothing fancy.

Just a great group of people cheering at the finish. Families, friends – a real good time.

The race director arranged for a chef who had all kinds of great things going on the grill, in the coolers and on the fruit tray.

Terri really stepped it up a notch, while still providing the old school ultra experience that many of us enjoy. That’s saying something seeing as how she does it all for free (accepting donations on race day)

$20 is bargain for an ultra these days.

I finished in 6:58, so I can say sub-seven {wink}.

Good for 15th place overall.

I don’t think any more than three people sub-6′d this race. Byron Backer came close at 6:00:32 – it’s just really hard.

At least half of it is really hard.


Next up, running in Mexico? Oh, yes I am.

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Great report. I love hearing about the different perspectives out there. A magical race for sure, luring you to do more than you really want to do… or at least a little sooner. I ran with you for a mile or so in the first 3 miles… a few spots behind the lead female.

Hey, I ran this race (17 yr old, wore orange).
Leaving the first said station I remember going down hill some. Even thinking, this is going to be tough running back up. Understatement of my life. That was two miles straight uphill. It was terrible going from the turn around point to the aid station. Congrats on sub seven. Im glad I got sub eight.

Oh…. and BIG HUGS for your sub-7!!!

Awesome report, AS usual! Made me feel like I was there… especially the falling down parts. Thanks so much for sharing.

Great race report. Congrats on your sub 7. I would definitely love to give this race a try.

Great race report, I enjoyed meeting you at the race yesterday. By the way do you know if Byron Backer blogs. If sou could you let me know his address.
Josh Seppala

I was drooling over dunking in rivers/creeks this weekend too – love me some cold mountain refreshment! I soaked my legs at mile 39 with Sherpa John and giddy up – exactly what I needed. Excellent RR, great performance. Good luck in Mexico!

check out the Upchuck 50K
Its a race Matt Sims and I put on. Cumberland Trail
Hope you can make

@David – I hung around for an hour after I finished as I wanted to see you, Mark E., Susan Donnelly, Rob Apple, and some others finish, but I had promised my wife I’d be home earlier this time. Sunday races are tough ’cause we gots ‘ta work the next day. Looking forward to your pics!

Another excellent report! Good to see you out there. Sorry you had to eat and run. I was only 1:10 behind you. :) The pics will be up tonight.

I only had 2 sandwiches. And watermelon and cookies and chips and veggie soup and candy and . . .

three cheers for “air bags”

hehe …I had three of those sandwiches.

Man you really can sum it all up. I definitely have a love/hate relationship with that trail.
Great race report and a great race yesterday!
I just wish I would have gotten another of those pork sandwiches…

Great report Christian! I ran Chattooga 50K last year and DNF’d at mile 22. I was toast after the big climb and the rising temps.

And awesome job on the back to back 50K’s in a week.


aka stump jump chad. nice
Thats was a nasty fall but those two air bags on your hands took some of the impact.
Great race report.thks CW

Sounds like you had a great day out. Not sure if you remember, but right after the turn around I yelled at you to get your “nut huggers” ready! I was heading for the turn around. Great report as always…

Always a pleasure to read your race reports

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