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Nathan Holland’s report from the Mt Cheaha 50k

Mount Cheaha 50K – “The Race to the Top of Alabama”
Report by Nathan Holland

February 22, 2014

Gear: Marmot Windridge Short Sleeve Shirt, Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts, Smartwool PhD Run Graduated Compression Socks, Salomon Sense Ultra Shoes, Suunto Ambit 2 (HR) Watch, Camelbak Handheld Bottle, Hammer Gel Flask(s)

Quick & Dirty: Woke up at 3:00AM Saturday morning, drove 3.5 hours to race start, checked in & warmed up before 7:30AM start, started and ran 5th through Aid #1 (3.34mi), moved up to 1st at ~4mi, ran 1st through Aid #2 (8.50mi), found out at Aid #2 that I missed a turn at ~5.5mi and ran ~3.0mi of an awesome rock garden and as a result found myself in 9th NOT 1st, back on “official” race course, moved up to 7th by Aid #3 (14.87mi), moved up to 6th by Aid #4 (18.37mi), moved up to 5th by Aid #5 (25.30mi), ended up running next ~2.5mi on gravel/paved road and really struggled (pavement pounding is mentally challenging for me), fell to 7th by Aid #6 (27.90mi), climbed Blue Hell to the finish line Aid #7 (31.11mi). Not my best day but definitely not my worst day!

7th Place Overall @ 5:03:34

Nitty Gritty:

Pre-Race: Back in the fall of 2013 I spoke to my friend Samuel Hammonds, Rock/Creek race team member, about a good early spring run that wasn’t too far outside of Chattanooga. He mentioned that February had Black Warrior 50k and Mount Cheaha 50k that were both good runs. Black Warrior was out due to a New Hampshire trip to visit some family so Mount Cheaha was down in the books for my first non-R/C trail race. Mt Cheaha 50k is a point-to-point trail/road race beginning at Porters Gap Trailhead following the Pinhoti, a few forest service roads and other trails to finish at the summit of Cheaha Mountain in Cheaha State Park.

Leading up to this run I was fairly inconsistent on my training runs and overall health. My wife, two daughters and I seemed to pick up a never-ending sick bug and had been fighting that on and off for close to two months. Needless to say, I didn’t have a lot of expectations for this run; I was just looking forward to a good day running in the woods with a few other trail runners. Saturday morning started around 3:00AM when I woke up, gathered my gear and jumped in my Dad’s truck with my race crew for the day… Dad, Stepmom and Jodi (my Father’s dog that LOVES the trail races). With pit stops and gaining an hour for time zone change we showed up with about 1.5 hours to spare before the 7:30AM start.

Plenty of time, especially considering my pre-race routine is pretty basic. I see a man about dog a few too many times, I spend about 10 minutes with some dynamic warm ups and then make my way to the starting line and proceed to yawn over and over until the race starts… I have no idea about the yawning? Most runners park at the finish area and shuttled over early that morning. So, about an hour before the race started three busload of runners showed up at the start and the atmosphere really got amped up and you could feel the “trail race buzz” in the air.

As 7:30AM closed in we all meandered behind the starting banner to get ready for the 100-yard dash to the bottleneck onto the Pinhoti trail. I realized pretty quickly that with 300+ people and such a short distance to the trail start that it was going to be very important to be in the top few runners off the starting line.

Start to Aid #1: We started the race, not to the usual sound of a starting gun but to the open lyrics of “Sweet Home Alabama!” As we funneled onto the trail within a ½ mile the lead group settled into an easy pace with a never-ending line of runners snaking along behind. Running the first section of trail toward Aid #1 I was reminded of the TNT Mountain Bike Trail at Enterprise South Nature Park. This 3+ miles of trails was very runnable single track with lots of pine needle coverage and an easy ~400ft climb to the top of the small ridge with some beautiful views. I was running in 5th and the pace seemed to be almost too slow to feel comfortable but I knew that we had a pretty good amount of climbing coming throughout the day so I should just take it easy.

About 2 mile into the race the guys around me starting talking about the train crossing at the first aid station and how if you timed it wrong you may be just standing around waiting for this train to pass… well on the way down the back side of the first ridge we could hear a train coming so we kicked it into high gear to see if we could beat the train. As we popped out of the trail and started down the short road section toward Aid #1 (3.34 miles) we saw the train blocking our paths and you could see everyone’s heads drop with disappointment. Then to our amazement the tail end of the train came blowing by and we barely even had a chance to slow our pace.

Aid #1 to #2: Just a short distance past Aid #1 we jumped back on the trail heading up some moderate climbs. I found myself in 2nd place and the leader was running just a little slower than what felt comfortable so at ~4mi I took the lead and just set into a climbing groove for the next mile and put some distance between myself and the rest of the other runners. When I got to the bottom of a short downhill and started a small climb out on the other side I looked back over my shoulder to see some runners coming down the hill and confirmed that I was still on the correct trail.

Somewhere around 5.5-6 miles I popped out onto a forest road running perpendicular to the Pinhoti trail I had been running on. I looked left and right and didn’t see any flagging indicating a turn but I did see the dark blue blaze and Pinhoti trail marker directly on the trail in front of me so I kept on trucking. This section soon reminded me of the rocky sections of the Cumberland Trail on the R/C UpChuck 50k course. I was constantly looking up to spot blazes then quickly putting my head back down to keep feet moving forward through the now treacherous rock garden that had blossomed. Around 7 miles I knew something seemed off because I hadn’t seen any flagging, only blazes and hadn’t seen or heard any other runners. My pace had dropped significantly because of the rocks but by now I figured I had at least 1-1.5 miles back to the last trail crossing and close to 1.5 miles to Aid #2 at 8.5 miles so I told myself that if I got to 8.5 miles and didn’t see anything I would turn around then and just make an extra long day of it.

The rock garden lasted for ~2 miles and was actually a lot of fun, it was technically difficult and really gave my feet a pounding but I enjoy the difficult trails more than the easy ones. A little before 8.5 miles I could see an intersection ahead and some people so I knew Aid #2 was coming up. When I popped out of the trail I definitely realized that something was wrong based on all of the funny looks from everyone at the aid station. I looked to my right and saw a forest road coming down from my right that was flagged with orange flags and realized that I had missed a turn and I knew it had to have been at the forest road crossing… well crap! I talked to a race volunteer for a few seconds while I was getting some fuel and they said I hadn’t run any shorter, maybe a little longer, but that the trail I ran was A LOT slower than the forest road… Awesome!

Aid #2 to #3: As I jumped back on the “official” racecourse I asked what position I was in and they said I had dropped down to 9th. The next 6+ miles of trail was pretty fun with some relatively small climbs and quick down hills. I ran this section pretty fast, mainly because I was trying to make up some ground from my missed turn. There wasn’t anything that technical through this section with the exception of a few short rocky areas. The rock was nice and firm and didn’t roll around under your feet so you always felt really connected to the trail. By the time I started up a small rocky climb to Aid #3 I had worked my way up to 7th.

Aid #3 to #4: Leaving Aid #3 we had to run back down a short section of the only out-and-back portion of the race. Somewhere along the way toward the next aid station I realized that I was starting to get a little fatigued and figured I must have used a little too much energy trying to make up lost time. It was also starting to heat up by this time and I knew I would be in trouble later if I didn’t take enough time to get some calories in for the second half of the race.

I slowed my pace a little and would get some chicken noodle soup down whenever I hit a slow up hill section. Unfortunately for me though, this half of the race was supposed to be the “easier” portion so it was a struggle to make myself slow down enough to eat. There were a few small creek crossings between these two aid stations and the cool water on my feet felt great. By the time I got to Aid #4 I had bumped up to 6th place and was feeling a little better from getting some food down.

Aid #4 to #5: With a second wind kicking in I was able to step my pace back up slightly as I left Aid #5 and settled into a decent pace. This part of the race meandered all along creeks and streams with lots of twists, turns, short steep climbs, quick down hills, and a few good creek crossings… I think there were two, maybe three good crossing… I can’t recall right off. The creek crossings were fun because you could just pick a good line across and regardless of your path you were guaranteed to get wet, with calf-to-knee high water.

Other than the knee high water crossings this section of the race reminded me a lot of Stage 3 of the R/C Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race. Over the 7 miles of trail covered in this section I was able to move up one more position to 5th place, but as I started closing in toward Aid #5 I really started to feel the last 25+ miles and I knew it was probably going to be a rough final 6 miles to the finish.

Aid #5 to #6: Rolling up to Aid #5 we got off the trail and started down a forest road. This gave me a chance to walk with my family for a minute and get a fresh bottle and a little bit of food. I really should have read the course description better because I thought I was just going to run a short distance down the forest road and jump back onto the trail… Well, I was wrong about that. This was the portion of the race why the course description reads, “point to point trail/road race…” This section runs about a mile or so down a hard packed gravel road and then hangs a right turn onto some asphalt and twists and turns toward Aid #6 for another mile or so.

This road section is actually very runnable despite the slight climb along the first half of the 2.6-mile stretch between aid stations. However, this was probably the most difficult portion of the race for me all day. Mentally I’ve always struggled with road running and it doesn’t help when I’m already drained from a good amount harder trail miles on my legs. Anyhow, I pushed as long as I could but eventually I was caught by a couple of people and just before running into Aid #6 I found myself back into 7th place.

Aid #6 to #7 (Finish): As I left Aid #7 I my muscles were starting to get cramps and I knew it would be a good climb to the top of Mount Cheaha.

I found a little motivation to run again as I got off of the road and back onto some trails even though a ¼ mile or so past Aid #7 it started up the steep climb they call Blue Hell. Blue blazes on the trees and rocks show the way to the top of this ~1 mile climb. The trail is very steep and makes for a nice slow climb to the top.

Climbing to the top my muscles were screaming and I was ready for the finish but I did enjoy the climb and was actually a little bummed when I came out of the rocks and found another very short road section. There is a very short ~1/2 mile flat/downhill road section before the last ~1/2 mile climb to the Bald Rock Lodge at the summit of Cheaha Mountain.

As we closed in on the finish you could here the finish line music, which was good motivation to finish strong. I maintained my 7th position through the finish and felt like I finished this section a lot stronger than the previous. Overall I finished in 5:03:34 and finished in 7th place. This was a beautiful course with a lot of amazing views and a lot of mixed terrain that made the entire day a lot of fun.

Gratitude: I’m extremely thankful for God’s beautiful trails here in the southeast, my family’s support/crewing, Rock/Creek, the Pinhoti Trail Series, and all of the Mount Cheaha support members who made this run possible.

Until the next race,

Nathan D. Holland
2014 Rock/Creek Race Team

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