Unofficial Meat Grinder 50K++

Saturday and Sunday’s weather report called for 97 degrees, with a heat index of over 100 degrees. The news anchors were recommending that people stay indoors, in air conditioning, and even limit pets to no more than 30 minutes outside.

In heat like that, what in the heck are a bunch of crazy ultrarunners supposed do?

That’s easy – create a new brutal running challenge, of course.

“If it a’int rough, it a’int me” – Eazy-E, NWA

Since I started running, I’ve always been intrigued by difficult challenges – be it a difficult course or difficult conditions or difficult qualifications – or a combination of all three.

Races like Spider Tynes’ Hot 2 Trot race where runners loop a 1.1 mile trail, over and over, for eight hours in sweltering Georgia August heat, or Claude Sinclair’s Laurel Valley self-supported, somewhere-around-35-miles, brutal beatdown on the South Carolina foothills trail; the relentless SCAR run that traverses difficult peak after peak after peak deep within the Smokies; The two loop run on Coosa Backcountry trail crawling 7000 feet of elevation in 26 miles; and of course the hardest thing ever for me, the Superior Sawtooth 100-mile race on Minnesota’s super-rugged Superior Hiking Trail.

Couple all that with a new running buddy who likes crazy as much as me, and other friends willing to tag along for the training, and you’ve got the recipe for some fun, challenging stuff.

Introducing the Inaugural and Unofficial Meat Grinder 50K++

If you’ve know me, you know that one of my favorite training spots is the Appalachian Trail [AT]. The approach trail to the Southern Terminus of the AT is a beautiful, and brutal, stretch that makes 8 miles seem like 18. We call it Meat Grinder, and a trip to Meat Grinder, out-n-back, will definitely be a 17-miler you won’t soon forget.

There’s a handful of us here in north Georgia training for the White River 50-mile race at Crystal Mountain in Washington state, and we are seeking as many hard, hilly training runs as we can fit into our schedule – but still nearby.

Naturally, the Meat Grinder had to fit in the plan somewhere and seeing as how we love to try new things, planning be damned, we did just that.

Sunday morning, June 28, 2009, three numb-skulls, “too-fast-Matt”, “three-kids-Tony”, and “phat-mouth-Christian” headed out self-supported, to complete a 34.2-mile run from the stone arch at Amicalola Falls Visitor Center to Hightower Gap, and back again, on 100% single-track along the Appalachian Trail.

The Unofficial Meat Grinder 50K++ was underway.

Section 1: the approach

Hehe. This is just flat-out tough. It’s no exaggeration when I say that the very first step onto the trail is a climb, and that climb continues for 1.25  very steep miles, to the parking area of Amicalola Falls.

Matt runs the whole mile up.

Tony and I run a third of it, opting to power-hike the steep gravel hill

The approach to Springer Mountain, and thus, the AT, sorta rolls like this:

Ascend steeply…

…descend steeply.

Ascend steeply…

…descend steeply.

Ascend steeply…

…descend steeply.

Three evident and distinct mountain climbs, with some rolling in between.

I’ve said this before, but I swear I can “feel” the spirits on this trail – the spirits of journeys started and dreams realized. So much history on the Appalachian Trail.

The trail is very rugged with root gardens, sharp chunky rocks and dense overgrowth. From a “challenging run” perspective, this is a great way to start a long event since it will most likely send the uninitiated back towards lodge after 8+ miles of this kind of stuff, knowing that an entire marathon distance still lies up ahead.

Section 2: headed to Hightower

I have never run past Springer Mountain and was shocked at the technical descent from the top, to the small gravel parking area at the bottom. Having communicated with Lane and Jenn Vogel (female winner of the Keys 100 race) the day before the run, they offered to leave us some water jugs at the base of Springer Mountain and run around until they found us as they were also training out there that same day.

This proved to be key as it was HOT and water was scarce. “Thanks guys!”

After we refilled our emptying water bottles at the base of the mountain, we made our way towards Hightower Gap, about 8 miles away.

Now, if you want to try this run, it’s helpful to know that this is where you can really open up if you have it in you after the approach section. The first half of this section is literally 4.1 miles of solid downhill.

springer-to-hightower

Just remember, what goes down, must come back up {wink}

Of course, too-fast-Matt was way ahead, but Tony and I stayed close together through this section, both of us already hurting a little – yes, I know, only 10-12 miles in and already hurting – but, that’s the AT for ya.

All we could say was, “Duuuuude, we gotta come back up this thing”.

It was amazing. We just kept going down, down, down, finally hitting bottom at Three Forks.

After Three Forks, there are some light rolling climbs and descents, and a BEAUTIFUL fern garden that was super immense and blindingly green. I swear, like the Celestine Prophecy, I get energy from plants that just scream energy. I believe in the energy of living plants. This is also where we bumped into Lane and Jenn, and all of us, at various points along the way, got some quality miles in with the uber-fit couple.

But, this beautiful, rather easy running is pretty short lived – maybe 2 miles-ish – before starting yet another very long descent, which eventually turns into a drastic descent, finally dumping us out into the gravel parking area of Hightower Gap.

I might also add that this is where Tony and I bumped into too-fast-Matt Kahrs, already on his way back. The kid was 4 miles ahead of us! …and looking cool as a cucumber.

Not us.

Only halfway done …and dead freakin tired!

Section 3: the climb back out of Hightower

Oh man, this is where the beatdown was coming together.

It was now rolling into the hot part of the day. We both were almost completely out of water, tired, and facing 17 more miles – six of which were about to be all uphill, followed by the return from Springer Mountain back down the approach trail.

“Oh man, Tony, what was I thinking with this run idea?”

We started making our way up the first sharp ascent, fueling up while trying to conserve water. We reached a sign for a hiker shelter and decided to brave the extra mileage in search of water. Geeez, in the Smokies, the shelters are right there along the trail – but not at Hightower – we had to hike about a .25 mile before we found the water.

Nothing like bonus miles, right?

Fueled up with plenty of water, we started a series of run a little, power hike a little, run a little… and of course, because it’s my duty in this sport, I fell over and over and over again, but we finally made it to the top of the sharp ascent, and began running through that beautiful fern garden section again, making our way back to Three Forks.

I fell one more time, looked up, saw Tony’s blue shirt in the distance, heard him yell, “YOU OK?!”, and I never saw him again…

I made my way to Three Forks, plopped my sweaty, stinkin’ butt is the rushing creek, and soaked in the cold water liked an African hippo.

Remember that 4.1 mile descent that started off section 2 on the way to Hightower Gap?

springer-to-hightower

Welp, time to go back up that…

and up…

and up…

Made it to the Stover Creek Shelter sign, but chose to try to make it back to Springer Mountain where water jugs were {hopefully} stashed for us.

Big mistake.

I seem to always do this. Like I am trying to deprive myself of what I need in order to conserve for when I might start feeling like complete death. This is a terrible strategy as it really only sets me up for complete death – not prevents it.

I only had 1.6 miles more to go to get to the base of Springer, but ran out of water with a mile to go. Any other time, who cares right? It’s just a mile…

…but at that time, it was the longest, dry-mouthed, dizzy mile I have endured in awhile …not to mention the anxiety that follows when one is waterless, tired, loopy and having difficulty thinking as clearly as one should.

But all drama aside I made it to the base of Springer where Lane and Jenn had left the water stashed behind a tree. I filled my bottles, poured the rest over my head, and started the steep, technical backside climb to the top of Springer Mountain.

Section 4: bringing it home

This is where the story turns emotional.

This return stretch from Springer Mountain to the Amicalola Visitor’s Center touched me many times in that 8+ mile stretch, in various ways.

Check this out…

So, I summit Springer to find two ladies, and a golden retriever, looking tired and spacey. I grunted a greeting and sat down to clean out my soggy wet shoes.

I made some small talk with one of the women about the heat, the climb, etc… when I noticed she had been crying – and her friend was over by a tree REALLY crying it up.

“yikes, is your friend having a difficult time on the trail today?“, I asked.

She smiled, “nope, those are tears of joy.” — “we just completed our thru-hike.”

“What???!!!”

I was shocked.

Here I was, dopey ol’ sweaty-ass me, sittin’ up here cleaning out my shoes in the middle of these two awesome hikers celebrating a MASSIVE accomplishment!

I was so stoked.

I started congratulating them, sharing my water with their dog, and talking a mile a minute. I was so impressed with these ladies and so happy for them. They hiked every square inch of the Appalachian Trail, my dream goal.

I sat up there with them for 15 minutes, taking photos for them with their individual cameras, talking story and sharing in their joy, …and it was just killer.

Man, I just can’t express how cool that moment was. I left Springer with a grin from ear to ear.

Way to go ladies!!!!!!!!

——

However, once that stoke started to taper off, I once again came to the realization that I was struggling a bit in the 95+ heat, was almost out of water AGAIN, and had no more calories.

Rats.

I started noticing I was swerving like a drunk. I was slouching and must have looked pretty bad to random hikers I would see here and there.

Just then – a butterfly swooped by my face, then came back again, almost hitting me in the forehead.

At first I was annoyed.

…but then, I realized it was my grandmother.

Yep, I’m that weird and wacko that I truly believe that my grandmother, who passed away in 2005, visits me on the trail when times get tough. Whether it’s real or not isn’t really relevant – I believe it – and that’s all that matters. If it gives me inspiration, it’s real.

I was so excited, I started laughing out loud all by myself. I thanked her for showing up …for always being there for me – alive or dead.

I clenched my fist, punched up towards the trees and yelled, “life is great!”

And I started running harder and with better form.

“Time to get back and put this one in the books.”

I ran the last 4 miles like I had just started the run – upright, positive, happy, fast feet…

…and there it was – the stone arch – the icon representing the start to the Appalachian approach trail – and the sign that reads, “2,108 miles to Katahdin, Maine.”

The finish

Just as I passed under the arch, I heard, “Beast!”, and saw too-fast-Matt standing there with a Coke, a Powerade and two bottles of water for me.

Good kid that Matt Kahrs.

Tony had finished about 15 minutes before me and was puking and resting in the AC of his car, much to Matt’s delight. We all hopped in the cold creek to soak the legs, sharing stories of our individual experiences on the trail, and laughing and smiling, all the while shaking our heads in disbelief.

If your an ultrarunner, you know what I mean.

On the ride home, Matt and I sounded like a couple of little kids, both proud of our accomplishments, but also already planning the next difficult run to take on next.

This is our fun.

We do these things because we love to run. We love the highs and lows and being out in the nature, challenging ourselves by overcoming mental, physical and emotional anguish.

I feel like I grow as a man with every single finish. I feed on the stoke. I learn more about myself and others and I become more aware of others and their emotional experiences too.

My life seems to be evolving quite a bit, and while my wife probably deserves most of the credit, running is a major contributor.

I am an ultrarunner.

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Comments

Ditto on the “Nice one!”. One thing I’ve learned from your reports is to never pass up water when I’ve got the chance. :)

Nice one! I ran from Springer Mt. to Dick’s Creek Gap with a 14 pound pack in 3 days 2 weeks ago. All but 2 miles of that was with a cracked rib & crushed lung. Ouch.
http://coachspencer.blogspot.com/2009/06/73-miles-of-appalachian-trail-in-3-days.html

Good luck at White River!

Great run and a great day. What a blessing to feel your grandmother with you when times get tough. Congrats on continuously upping the ante! Jessica

@Dan …I know I should …but no I don’t treat

Another great run report… Keep on writin’ and runnin’ I always get inspired to do the runs you write about.
Question…Do you have to purify the water outta the creeks up there? Thanks Dan

Rob …you must live right smack dab in the center of Mountain Mist – no wonder you slay it like the big dog.

If you gleamed that 7:40 from these comments, that’s how long it took me to complete a double-Coosa, not this 50K++ associated with this report. It took my about 9:40 for this Meat Grinder deal. –wasted a few minutes on top of Springer and chasing water, but that’s part of the experience.

My buddy Matt did it in 7:19, and he’s a waaaay sub-5 50Ker. Watch this kid Matt Kahrs – he’s blowin’ up the 50Ks and I can’t wait to see what he does at White River.

Thanks for writing – perhaps you can run me out on your 50K loop deal someday?! I’d love that.

Great job Christian! I too did an “unofficial” 50km of my own on June 20th. Right out of my back gate I’ve got a kick-ass course I call the Dismal 50km. It’s actually 8 repeats of a 4 mile out and back that includes some of the steepest trails in Monte Sano State Park. The verified total elevation gain is ~11,500 feet (pretty easy to verify as in one “loop” you have two big drops and two big climbs) over the 32 mile course. This day was 97 degrees F with heat index well into the 100′s. It took me 11h 35m to get through this sucker! The other thing with the Dismal 50km is that the trails are all very technical and steep making even the downhills difficult to “run.” So your 7:40 was either smoken’ fast or there really isn’t as much climb as you think; probably the lower end of your elevation change prediction. Really can’t trust a GPS w/o barometric calibration. Regardless, great job on a tough training run. These are the kind of runs I’m into as well, unfortunately I had to stay close to home…

Sounds like a good time was had by all.

I love that run. You can also make it a loop of sorts by incorporating the BMT between three forks and Springer.

Ya know you can get water our of those small creeks and springs. :)

Josh

Keep sharin’ the stoke. Heat was killer on Saturday!

NICE write-up. I’m happy to hear that Tony was puking. It’s good to cleanse the soul every now and again.

This weekend should be just as great. Bring your suntan lotion.

That had mad heart, son! Nothing beats the first time. We popped that course’s cherry! BEAST!

MK

@Steve: The Garmin, at least my 405, is well known for being waaaaay off on elevation.

The rangers at Vogel told me one loop is 5200 (10,400 for a double), and others have told 3500 feet (7000 for a double), of total elevation gain in a loop. I never really know for sure, so opted to write the most conservative number …but yea, I’m like you, the Double Coosa is a BEAST, and 7000 just doesn’t seem possible.

But I almost 100% sure your number is off because 20,000 would be too much.

My Garmin 405 read Meat Grinder alone, last summer when I had a Garmin, at 12,000+ and we all know that while hard, it’s not 12,000.

Whatever the case may be, your double Coosa is strong brutha’ – I heard you guys came in just a little over seven hours. I was 7:40! ….nasty, nasty run

…but I hear we’re all headed back next weekend, right?

Great writing. I’ve always wondered what lay past Springer. I did the double helping of coosa on Sunday and also ran dangerously low on water. A stash at wolf pen gap would have been nice.

I’m wondering how you got 7k in gain for 2 loops at coosa? Garminconnect had 20k, which must inflated, but by 13k? They need to fix that if 7k is correct for both loops.

Christian,
Loved It! And your Grandmother too!
I want to recommend a book “The real world of fairies” By Dora Kunz, Dora Van Gelder Kunz. More people to watch for on your runs. And also I enjoy the indigenous runners thinking “My Sister the Wind and My Brother the Water” so rain, wind, streams forded or dry my relatives and fairies are on the trail with me.
Congratulations on such a strong finish. Also appriciate the thanks to your wife and family for sharing you with the trails.
Christopher

Loved this piece! Your love for ultras and writing shine through.

Yes you are. And I humbly bow in your general direction once again. You rock. Kudos on another job well done!

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