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,

“nope…”

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:

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

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Comments

Nice report! Well run and well written.

You runners ought to compile a book of blogs. I have often wondered what people see in tearing out with so many miles of steep hills ahead of them. ‘Seemed kinda masochistic to me until I read the report and the responses. ‘Finally I see the reason for the enthusiasm… and I get jazzed just imagining what you are experiencing.
Thanks for the contact-endorphines!
Love ya’, Aunt Susie

Wow, I am so impressed with this event and you alls efforts. Truly inspiring!

Brooke:

That’s killer. I love it when people share my reports because I love to write …maybe a little too much.

Congrats on your impressive finish and I hope to see ya out on the trails.

Cheers!

Jason – long time no hear?

Thank you for your comments – Cheaha and the entire Talladega National Forest are both stunning.

Can’t wait to go back.

Hope all is well with you. Check back.

Christian,

Always have been an inspiration to me, both with your career and the way you handle yourself outside of work. Sounds like you had a great time.I’ve camped several times on this mountain and know several of the locations you mentioned, its pretty and I bet it was a blast.
Keep up the pace…

-Jason

Christian,

Great report and that sounds like a cool race. I didn’t know you were from Myrtle, I ran the marathon there last weekend and had a great race (I know it’s just a road marathon). With two tough finishes in Alabama, you ought to be primed for the rocks that await at Bel Monte in March. Looking forward to seeing you there and congrats on your finish at Cheaha.

Bedford

Cheaha 50k is the real deal. Strap up and bring your A game, its got everything you think you’re ready for and then some more that you aint.
cya next year
Jake

Christian,
Todd sent me your Mountain Mist race report to get me fired up for my first ultra, which was Mount Cheaha. I’m the president of Anniston Runners and had a blast hosting our aid station at Chinnabee last year, and caught the fever to run it this year.

Trained with the best guys in the world — Todd (of course), Will Williams, Johnny Jonakin, Banyon Allison, Wayne Phillips, and Vince Adams. Learned something different from each one. I loved every moment of it, even Blue Hell. Even though I live on the mountain, as I did each section of the trail for training, I experienced it in a different way than when we hike it. It is beautiful, isn’t it?

Thanks for a great report. I felt your pain and your jubilation! Made me want to go back out and do it again — not really. But I’ll be back next year.

See you at the next one. Whenever –

Brooke Nelson

I did notice! I am very very jealous – I need to do that. I don’t have the courage to register for one of those yet :(

You know me – always down for a run. Any time you wanna grab a run in N. Georgia, shoot me a message & I’d be happy to join you. Enjoy!

– Greg

Greg – thanks dude – but whatever …me the ultra fiend? must I point you to the Mountain Mist race results and *your* killer time?

But, thanks. I really do appreciate your support.

I’m ready to get in a AT approach run. How ’bout you? Maybe this time I won’t slow you up quite so much…

{grins}

you do know I went crazy and registered for a 100, right?

surreal…

Dude – kick ass report, man! Killer race huh?

Todd has done a great job now 3 years in a row – I beat he does a great job at Pinhoti 100 as well.

Hats off to you, you are becoming quite the ultra-fiend. Not to mention your blog is great!

– Greg

great report! Makes me want to try it.

Dwayne:

Thanks for your support. I think that’s awesome that you are considering the Pinhoti 100. I can only imagine the brutality.

I actually signed up for my first 100 – the Superior Sawtooth 100 in Minnesota.

I’m just gonna go for it! See what I am really made of…

Thanks for writing. It’s always cool to get feedback from the elites.

Hi Mike.

Man, you aren’t kiddin’ – I hope my report doesn’t seem like I am diminishing the difficulty of Mist, because it is a brute — and I thoroughly enjoyed that challenge as much as I will surely enjoy the next…

and you’re right, single-track ALWAYS trumps jeep road.

…but when you’re having moments of feeling wimpy, sometimes a little relief sounds good …but that’s a fleeting thought at best.

Thanks for writing.

Shar:

Hi! Congrats on a solid finish. …and yea, it gets in your blood all right …and dirties your finger nails, and scratches your legs and chafes your thighs, blackens toenails…

I didn’t realize how many scratches I had until I stepped into the hot shower ….yeeeeow!

Hi Julie – thanks for sharing your experience.

I am sorry that you had a difficult time with your ankle – and – I can certainly empathize. I was inches from cashing it in when I took that beef right after aid station three.

I have a love/hate relationship with loose rocks. It’s a thrill ride and I’m a thrill seeker…

{grins}

Christian,

Wonderful race report! You made me feel like I was back on the course (a good thing). Congrats on yet another finish. I am planning on signing up for the Pinhoti 100 so I can enjoy even more of the trail…although according to Todd, we have to go down Blue Hell! Again great report and good luck at Bel Monte.

DeWayne

Cheaha is no doubt the toughest trail run in Alabama, but you sure can’t discount Mtn Mist much. Both are the best the South has to offer right now but I have a feeling GUTS might have some challenges coming, of course that’s just my hunch.
I had a great time Saturday, the cold and wet wasn’t expected to be quite as pivital but, hey, you tale it as it comes. The new section was great, single track always trumps jeep trail and I don’t think the course was a bit shorter then either of the other years. And it took away some of the winding around on top of the Mountain after the climb.
Good report, missed meeting up with you at Cheaha, going to MS50 this weekend? Tame by all comparisons, but 50 miles is 50 miles!

Christian,

I enjoyed running with you and Steve down the section of jeep road and into the first section of the Pinhoti. Thanks for the words of support. I DNF’d Mtn. Mist after twisting my ankle for the fourth time, so with a brace on my left ankle and a little more training under my belt I was very happy to finish Cheaha. This stuff does get into your blood. Keep the blogs coming.

Shar

I’ve been nursing my wounds this Sunday. I had to drop out at 24 after twisting my ankle so bad that it almost popped out of my shoe. I was stressing thinking I could maybe struggle up the hill and make it to the finish. I read your race report and finally felt good that I dropped. “There’s always next year…” a finisher told me this morning at the Cracker Barrel in Anniston.

I was there at the train holdup but was with you about the folks who were complaining. I was just happy to be there and alive.

It hurt not to finish. I can’t lie. I’ve never NOT finished. I ran Mtn. Mist in 2003 and trained on it to get ready for Mt. Cheaha and it IS definitely harder.

Your report is great and reminded me that I didn’t need to finish – at least for the sake of my kids and husband. I was woozy and didn’t have use of one foot, and there’s always next year. Great site! Best wishes on all your next races. JVL

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