“Life Is (Not Always) An Adventure Race – Our First UltraMarathon” by Jim Farmer, October 2003
This is the second year for the Stump Jump 50K Trail Run put on by Rock/Creek as a benefit for the Cumberland Trail Conference. Appropriately, it takes place mostly on the Cumberland Trail, starting at Shackleford Ridge Park near Edward’s Point and making its way across Suck Creek Road and into the main part of the Prentice Cooper State Forest. Fortunately, they also offer an eleven-mile option for the people that don’t spend most of their time in straight jackets. That’s what my wife, Carol, and I decided to undertake last year but, for some reason, we felt the call of the wild and decided to tackle the 50K this time around. It made perfect sense since neither of us had ever done a marathon or anything close to it and this was going to be almost thirty-three miles on technical single-track trails with several thousand feet of elevation change.
Now you may ask what kind of freaky new-age logic this conforms to. To that I have no response. Although neither of us was really ready for this kind of distance we had spent quite a bit of time running the trails in the area to get ready for this epic romp. Carol had single-handedly boosted Rock Creek’s sales projections for the next year by trying just about every women’s trail runner they had before finally settling on a pair. Of course, I can’t talk, given the rooms full of gear purchased for my various adventures. That, and the fact that if you run then you can’t spend too much money on your feet.
The night before the race, after the registration was done, North Face-sponsored trail runner Tim Tweetmyer came all the way from the left coast to give a presentation on ultra running. Tim has completed two zillion ultras and has won the Western States 100-miler five times. Great, I thought, we’re getting ready to do our first ultra trail run and this dude is making us sound like losers for only running thirty three miles. Thanks Tim. Thanks for the confidence boost. All kidding aside, it was a great presentation and it made me think that 50K wasn’t that hard. Too bad Tim was hurt and couldn’t run it the next day. I would’ve loved to have gone out fast and had my picture taken in front of him and maybe even taunted him a little bit before taking my rightful place in the middle of the pack. Yeah, that would’ve taught him a thing or two, Mr. 100-miler guy. I’m counting on the fact that Tim will never get his hands on this drivel.
Standing at the back of the pack, Carol and I gave each other a close-mouthed smile as we were about to embark on our epic journey. It was the kind of facial expression you give to reassure your loved ones that everything is going to be all right as the noose slips over your head and the preacher reads a passage from the good book while standing under the gallows. It’s half “don’t worry about me” and half “how did I get to this point.” A little history might help explain this. Carol and single-track trails are not the best of friends. You might remember that she had a badly sprained ankle earlier in the year that prevented her from doing the Blue Ridge Mountain Adventure Race and has had countless cuts and bruises from close encounters with the sedimentary kind.
This history would keep most sane humans on the pavement, but not Carol. For me, on the other hand, the more technical the better. However, I had a little scare three days before the race as I was doing my last tapering run prior to the event. Debilitating chest pains during the run prompted me to call my doctor as soon as I got to work. I spent that afternoon and the next morning running through diagnostic tests to determine the cause of my problem.
I was pretty confident that my ultra was going to have to wait another year, but worse than that, I was scared that racing was a thing of the past all together. Heck, it could be life threatening, especially given my family history of heart disease. Although they found nothing immediately from the stress tests I was still waiting on the final word from my doctor. Unfortunately, she was out on Friday so I didn’t have the final results in time for the race. I decided to do my own diagnostics with a short ride and run resulting in no chest pains whatsoever so I gave it the green light. I told Matt Sims, the race director, to have the defibrillator warmed up and ready to go just in case.
All of that was a blur on Saturday morning as our feet started moving forward and we quickly merged onto the tight trails surrounding Shackleford Ridge Park. It was a scene not unlike cattle being herded through a gate except that it smelled a little better, but that’s only because it was at the start of the race. It didn’t take long for the adrenaline rush of a race start to get the best of me and I was passing people at every turn, partly to get rid of the butterflies and partly to get near the front before we hit the technical sections below Mushroom Rock. The downhills are my friends and I didn’t want to get stuck behind some of the smarter runners that don’t have a death wish so I figured that a fast start would serve me well and it did. I was in a pack of six or seven guys as we hit the suspension bridge crossing North Suck Creek. I knew that this would be comical as we all tried to run across the bridge simultaneously, each step increasing the size of the oscillations of the swaying bridge. Depending on whether you caught the down or the up swing of the bridge your leg could travel anywhere between a few inches and over a foot on each stride resulting in a scene reminiscent of Monty Python’s Ministry of Funny Walks sketch. The excitement ended quickly though as the sheer wall of rock lying between North and South Suck Creek stared us in the face. We were less than four miles into the race at this point but runners separated quickly as they were confronted with a steep five hundred foot climb.
After topping out we started another steep downhill where we saw our first victim of the race hobbling down the trail to the aid station. We passed through the aid station and up Suck Creek Road a bit before climbing the stairs that took us into the main part of the Prentice Cooper State Forest. By this time the front-runners were long gone and I had joined up with two other runners, one from Pennsylvania and one from Atlanta, who happened to be adventure racers as well. We talked our way through the next five or six miles occasionally seeing other runners at aid stations or on the many switchbacks and drainage areas that dotted the trail system but, for the most part, it was just us for the next hour or so. I told them that the next section of the trail offered some of the best views of the Tennessee River Gorge; however, the sun had yet to burn through the morning fog making me sound like a fool. I often forget that some people aren’t as comfortable as I am with the view of a sheer thousand-foot drop to the river below.
One decision that ultra runners have to make is what to take with them and how much to depend on the aid stations for water, food, electrolyte replacement, etc. Carol and I made the decision to carry pretty much everything we needed with us for the entire race. We loaded up our Camelback FlashFlo fanny packs with Hammer Gel, Gummi Bears, Clif Bars, electrolyte tablets, Motrin, Benadryl and, of course, my trusty rusty Vivarin tablets for that extra kick in the pants when I needed it. At first I had my water bladder filled to the top but decided to dump about half of it before the start of the race thinking that I could at least grab water at the aid stations to refill the bladder if needed. It was also going to be a cool and mostly overcast day so dehydration wasn’t as much of a concern as it was during last year’s race when temps soared into the high 80’s. Most racers, on the other hand, toted around their fuel belts or hand-held water bottle carriers making us look like we were their support crew. Of course, it was too late to change my mind at that point so I went with it. I’m used to having a pack on so it doesn’t bother me in the least when running but I’m sure that the extra couple of pounds makes a difference in the long run; however, I found out very quickly that it offers a distinct advantage as I either passed or put distance on one runner after another that stopped at the aid stations to choke down both solid and liquid fuel and refill their water bottles. I blew off several aid stations and when I did stop at one it was for a very short time. The other advantage was that I could shoot gels and swallow electrolyte tablets at half-hour intervals at the prompting of my watch so I didn’t have to plan my race around the aid stations. Knowing the course also allowed me to choke down half of my Clif Bar during a fairly flat section while keeping a pretty good pace. I guess the pros and cons are debatable but I think that it evened out for me and the comfort of being self-reliant and passing people at aid stations added an immeasurable dimension to the race.
It’s about mile sixteen or so when you hit the Rock Garden section of the trail as it descends into the Mullens Creek gorge. There are plenty of technical sections along the course, in fact, the whole thing’s technical, but the Rock Garden is the granddaddy of them all. Although there is a trail that runs through this field of boulders, cobbles and trees you couldn’t tell it if it wasn’t for the pink flags laid out by the race volunteers and the white blazes on the trees marking the way along the Cumberland Trail. Of course, following course markings while your head is glued to the trail trying to avoid the innumerable obstacles is difficult at best. Just about every racer, including me, got off the trail at some point. Luckily I could count my losses in seconds while other racers, including Carol, were recounting stories of getting lost for twenty and thirty minutes. The technical nature of the trails was complicated by the fact that it had rained all day Friday making the moss-laden rocks as slick as snot along the entire course. This was, by no means, a simple run in the woods.
Although Carol and I thought we had trained pretty well by increasing our distance on runs and hitting the trails weekly we weren’t able to put in much more than a few two to three hour runs prior to the race. Given this, I had predicted that my legs would start to go somewhere between miles fifteen and twenty. Sure enough, as I climbed out of the Rock Garden my left calf started to show the first signs of cramping. My energy level was fine and I was well fed and hydrated and I had been popping electrolyte tablets as scheduled but it was simply the lack of distance training that began to take its toll. I knew that the next several miles of trail were relatively tame and I just needed to keep my legs loose and stay off of my toes as much as possible to keep my calf from locking up. I also started doubling up on the electrolyte tablets to try to alleviate the problem but, more importantly, to prevent other cramps from setting in. I knew that more cramping was inevitable; it was just a question of when.
The Stump Jump course was a lollipop with the first and last eleven or so miles being the stick and the middle ten or so representing the sucker. Given the fact that the Rock Garden is in the middle, sucker is an appropriate term. The junction of the stick and sucker sections was at Indian Rockhouse, a large rock overhang right along the bluff of the Tennessee River Gorge. A nice downhill section approaching this trail junction allowed my calf to take a break while my quads started to feel the burn. That’s when the spiritual nature of ultra running started to take hold. John Lennon’s “Imagine” had just hit the turntable in my internal jukebox and the scratch in the vinyl was right after “No Hell below us, above us only sky” as I repeated the line over and over inspired by the sight of the sun coming through the tree line as I approached the rim of the plateau once again. I can’t really explain it in words except to say that it was dream-like and the next mile passed by in what seemed like seconds. The dream was interrupted, however, by the flight of stairs shoved between the rock walls above the Indian Rockhouse. It was time to do the stick portion in reverse and, given the fact that both calves were starting to lock up on me, I knew that it would a painful experience.
I hadn’t seen a soul in about a half an hour but I started to hear voices behind me as I made my way in and out of a large drainage area, but I couldn’t make anyone out through the vegetation. I kept up my pace trying to stave off the severe calf cramps that were starting to set in thinking that I would soon be caught from behind. Up to that point I had passed people but nobody had passed me except for one of the front-runners who had gotten lost and passed me while trying to make up for lost time. I tried to stay with him for a few miles but his pace was just a little too hot so I settled back into my comfort zone. The thought of getting caught from behind was discomforting, although exactly seven days prior I was praying for help from a chasing group during the Sequatchie Valley Century Ride as I spent twenty miles in no-man’s land battling a stiff headwind. This was different though. That was a ride. This was a race. During the first half of the race I was just happy to be there and enjoyed sharing the trails with fellow runners and enjoying myself. Now it was time to go to work. I wanted to be the passer, not the passee. The fear was good however as I slipped on the slick rocks over and over again, laying on the trail in agony as my legs locked up as tight as ticks on a dog’s butt from the cramping. I would limp along for a while trying to massage out the cramps until I could run again. Fear kept me moving.
After another six miles I could see the aid station on Suck Creek Road peaking through the woods as I cruised along the ridgeline. I had either put quite a bit of distance on the guys behind me or they were just a figment of my imagination because there was no one in sight as I downed some gel and refilled my water bladder at the aid station in preparation for the last five and a half miles. I asked Rick Loggins what place I was in and he told me that I was somewhere around 12th but there were a few guys ahead of me that were looking worse than I was. I was inspired and felt like a hunter stalking his prey. It didn’t take long to spot my first quarry on the steep climb heading back to the suspension bridge over North Suck Creek. I caught him at the top of the climb and asked him how he was doing. There wasn’t much of a response. I’d been there before and didn’t want to dwell on it so I just kept moving.
I had run the next downhill a dozen times in preparation for the race, always thinking about what it would be like to do it after almost thirty miles of running. Now was the time to find out and it ended up being not that bad. My quads were in good shape at that point and I just focused on the trail while running it as fast as I normally did on shorter runs. After crossing the suspension bridge I started the journey up the last and toughest of the climbs on the course. Although I had run the entire length of the climb many times in the past, I had no preconceived notions of doing the same that day, at least not until I spotted some more prey a few hundred feet up the trail. He was walking at that point so catching him was easy. It turned out that he was another adventure racer, this time from Arkansas, and was having calf problems just like me. We decided to talk our way up to Mushroom Rock since it wasn’t breath that we were out of. At the top we parted ways as I got back into a comfortable pace trying to keep those legs loose. By this time my right knee was starting to complain and a new cramp that ran from my right calf all the way up the inside of my leg to my groin had begun to rear its ugly head. When it struck I had to drag my right leg along like Frankenstein and rub it frantically to loosen things up. I knew that the end was in sight so I just had to keep moving.
My “good race” goal was six hours and my “great race” goal was five and a half. Crossing the finish line at 5:06 was beyond my wildest dreams. It was good enough for an eleventh place finish and, although a top ten would have been sweet, I couldn’t complain. DeWayne Satterfield, a Huntsvillian that had been torching the field at just about every trail run he entered this year, won the race easily in 4:26. Carol, with a goal of under eight hours, came in at 7:18. Even without discounting the 20 minutes or so she spent lost in the woods she had crushed her estimate. The next day we started thumbing through the calendar at the back of Trail Runner magazine looking for another ultra to run. The first time is always the sweetest though, especially when it’s an incredibly well organized and well run event on a spectacular trail system. We’ll definitely be back to bite off more than we can chew again next year. Oh, by the way, my chest pains were probably caused by gas buildup in my chest wall, which leads to Jim’s tip of the month: Avoid Taco Bell at all costs the week before a big race.