March 3, 2013

Mt. Cheaha 50K, February 23, 2013

First, the locals pronounce it chee-haw. It took me a while to figure that out, so I thought I'd help you out-of-towners. 

This race is my happy place. After months of pounding pavement and mentally torturing myself with numbers and stats to try and get faster with road racing, I used Mt. Cheaha as my safe place. Go, run my first ever 50K, relax, and be happy. 

My brother-in-law, who was visiting from Maine, had similar goals for this race. Plus we both wanted to finish alive and unbroken. Cliff notes version: we did it!

My bro-in-law Randy and me at the start line.

Travel: We left Birmingham at about 4:10 a.m. so we could make it in time to ride buses that travel from the finish line to the start. According to their website and emails we received in the week leading up to the race, there is very limited parking at the start. True. The parking at the start was basically zero. Even though it wasn't fun leaving so early, I was glad that we did because I would have hated to worry about driving all the way back to get our car after running up the side of a mountain and all the leg soreness that goes with that. 

Next time I run this (and there will be a next time!), I'd like to plan earlier to stay at the park. I think my family would have really enjoyed hiking some of the trails and playing at the playground that was at the base of Blue Hell. 

Weather: The low was 44 degrees with a high of 58. The temps were perfect for running, but the couple of weeks of rain prior to the race, including a gully washer the night before, made for a soggy course. The water was up everywhere, and we especially noticed it at the 200 or so water crossings. That's not an exact count (surprise), but it was definitely more than I expected. I had just heard a ton about this one creek crossing that might be up to your waist, but I never heard anyone mention that we would cross many other knee-deep (if you're a short person) creeks. 

Here's one of the the creeks we crossed that was tricky because of the current which got stronger as it reached the top of the drop off on the right side. You can't really tell from the picture, but there's a little waterfall on the right. 


What you also can't tell from the picture is that if you step a little too far to the left, you drop into a deep hole. The people sitting on the opposite side told me about it after I had already crossed. That information would have been useful when I was about to step into that hole, but, well, OK. 

Sadly, all of the rain brought in foggy mist for the entire day, so we lost some of the views that would normally be amazing. 

Tip for a rainy Cheaha: Put your cell phone in a plastic baggie. I know this rule, but I completely forgot to do it for this race. So with every creek crossing, my main thought was, you better stay upright or Amory is going to have one more reason to be annoyed with racing. My husband is a little burned out on races after three weekends in a row in February. 

Pre-race: The buses left promptly, as Todd, the race director, promised/warned in multiple emails. Before jumping on the bus, we could use the restrooms at the lodge, and bonus, they were really clean. The bus ride was long and slow through the park, but it gave us a chance to relax before the start. 

Once we rumbled up to the race start, we were able to de-bus, sign in, pick up our race packets (shirt and number), and catch the last port-o-potty we would see for 31 miles or up to 9 hours (the race cutoff time). 

As some of you have already seen, there was also a Harlem Shake moment that went down at the start line. Somehow I was standing in the right place at the right time (or wrong place at the wrong time) and eagerly volunteered myself to start off the Harlem Shake for the racers. As my sister-in-law recently commented on a ridiculous video my brother posted of himself singing a love song for his wife (to win tickets to a concert), my siblings and I are absurdly confident in public displays of talent/non-talent.

In case you missed it, here's the video again. Watch the left corner for some serious pole dancing. Looking back, I realize we needed a few more people doing the worm in the front.


Pretty much my favorite race start ever. Immediately following the shakedown, Sweet Home Alabama blasted from the speakers for the official start.

The course: The race director has rolled every last bit of that trail to give you exact measurements for race day. Check out his handy guide to the course here. If you follow that link, you will see that the measurements are exact, exact, exact. This race director is not messing around with that business.

From the start line, you run straight into single-track trails. They are still passable, so while you want to set yourself up in a spot that's good for your speed, passing is still an option.

This pic is from a guy who was wearing a GoPro during the race. You can see the passabilities. Get it? Hilarious.


You hit a fire road a few miles into the race, where you can speed up or slow down, depending on what you're feeling at the moment and who's in front of you.

Michal and Lisa

The hills start pretty immediately. And keep going and going and going. The switching of up and down was actually good for my legs because it recruited different muscle groups so that I didn't blast one area completely. Plus some of the uphills gave us a chance to hike and rest for a bit.

The markings on the trail seemed sufficient for the course. There were some signs mixed with lots of orange flags to keep us on the right path. To be honest, I mostly followed the lead of whoever was in front of me, and I didn't think much about where we were going. At one point someone mentioned the sky had cleared up, and I realized that I hadn't looked up from the shoes of the person in front of me for about 20 minutes. 

Foggy, foggy.

And of course, there were water crossings, and water sloshings, and water everywhere. The creeks and the puddles really added up to some wet feet. Luckily the temps weren't freezing, or there might have been a higher chance of hypothermia with how wet we stayed the entire race. Also, I wore my Injnji socks which 100% saved my feet from monster blisters.

Here's the highest body of water we had to cross. If you can read lips, you will know that I'm saying, "Shhhhh...nikes, please don't let my phone get wet. Please don't let my phone get wet." It made for some slow creek crossings.


The thing I was second most worried about was poison ivy because I reached down and grabbed some on accident. After my episode with poison ivy last year, I am overly freaked out by it. For about 8 miles, I ran with my hand straight out from my side so that it wouldn't touch anything else. Then I tried my best to wash it in the next creek. Either it wasn't really poison ivy or my plan worked because I didn't get the dreaded rash.

The first third of the course had some extremely rocky zones where I twisted my ankle (not cool), and my running partner had a major fall (also not cool). Honestly, that was the hardest part of the course. The rocks covered large portions of the trail and were loose and slick from the rain, but it was still runnable. So a lot of accidents happened here.

Someone fell and shattered their patella on the course the day we were there, and I'm curious to know if it was during this segment of the race.

After we got out of the rocky zone, the course was pretty runnable. I loved all of the dips and climbs the trail took, and I even started enjoying the water crossings at some point. The cold water was like a quick ice bath for my calves and feet every time we sloshed through it. When I figured that out, I started enjoying running through the puddles instead of trying to circumvent them.

In prepping for the race, I worried about the climb of Blue Hell at the end the most. According to my GPS, we climbed almost 5K feet total for the day. Blue Hell was not easy at all, but it went by fast, and at least there were boulders and trees to grab to assist the climb. We were up and down so much the whole course, that the straight-up hike at the end didn't feel too crazy.


The aid stations were fully stocked from the beginning to the end of the race. Some of the grub I saw: M&Ms, peanut butter filled pretzels, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, oranges, bananas, plain pretzels, Hammer gels, boiled potatoes and salt, soda, HEED, and plenty of water. I decided on Heed at one station and almost could not gag it down. It probably is an acquired taste, so you should use some before the race to see if you can handle it during. It did the trick for keeping me hydrated and electrolyted though.

Runner tip: My running buddies told me that they use baby wipes to clean off immediately after trail running and that it has cut back on their cases of poison ivy. Stocking up on baby wipes for this summer!

My race: So this wasn't really a race for me. My Alabama Outdoors teammate Michael agreed to run with me because he was taking it easy in preparation for the Double Top 100 this weekend. And I was taking it easy because my legs were just plain tired from racing the two weekends before this. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't easy running at all, and I was absolutely exhausted in many/all points. I just didn't have that competitive spirit going into it that might have shaved off like 30 seconds.

Michael made a great running partner because he knows these trails really well, and he could tell me exactly what was coming up. Plus he has a deceivingly optimistic attitude about the entire trail. Every few miles he would tell me that we had just passed the hard part and that it was really easy after this. I pretty much have the opposite internal dialogue, so it was good to have some positive thoughts being fed into my brain.

There's also a fairly long stretch of road near the end of the race. I was not at all excited about it, but then Michael mentioned something about it being like Heartbreak Hill at Boston. Yup, the pep talk worked, and I found the chutzpah to run, even though the pavement was surprisingly painful after being on the soft ground. I can definitely understand why this is one of the most disliked parts of the course. It just plain jarred your legs. That jarring is easier to ignore when it is preceded by roads, but when it's preceded by pine-straw-covered trails that you could rest a sleeping infant upon, well, that's different.

Any time I made up on that road, I lost at the water crossings. Warning: slowest water crosser on the planet is the author of this blog. Even though this picture makes it look like I was sort of an all-business water crosser, the opposite was true.


Here's my running partner taking the fast path that doesn't include holding onto the rope behind the unofficial slowest water crosser in Alabama. 


For fueling I took my Camelbak, which is supposed to hold 50 oz. but really holds closer to 40 oz. I love this pack much more than holding onto a water bottle while I run. I just don't like the crookedness of my run when I'm holding a bottle. For shorter runs, it's not as big of a deal, but I didn't really want to run crooked for 31 miles. I was worried about chafing since I haven't run with this pack much, but surprisingly, I didn't get much, even with wearing a tank top. 

I filled the Camelbak up three times. Once for the start of the race. Once again with Heed, and once again with water. Plus, I would drink some cups of fluid at water stops. Because I wasn't sure how my body would react to flour and sugar on the run, I stuck to Hammer gels, oranges, bananas, and potatoes (only at the last aid station). Somewhere in there I lost count, but I probably had about ten Hammer gels. Sounds disgusting, but it worked. I never felt zonked during the race, and I didn't have any tummy troubles. In fact, I didn't have to squat in the woods a single time. Word to your mother bladder. And I will just mention for the millionth that I love the apple cinnamon Hammer gel. 

My overwhelming feeling as I climbed Blue Hell (the monster hill at the end of the race) and started to hear the music blasting from the finish line was giddiness. I was so happy to be there at this race. The scenery was gorgeous throughout the entire race, and I was actually really excited that all the water was up throughout the course, giving us the full Mt. Cheaha experience. I was just in awe of experiencing the 50K for the first time, and I was relatively shocked that I had made it to end without some major breakdown.

Me and my bro-in-law Randy at the finish line. Donzo!

We finished! Survival was the main goal for the day, and we nailed it. My final time was 6:25, 53rd overall, 11th woman.

AO teammates and friends at the finish. You can tell who finished long ago by their change of clothes.

After-party: After we picked up our wooden finisher's plaque, we headed straight to the buffet at the lodge.


I was hungrier than I can ever remember being after a run. Normally I want to vomit after a race, but I could not pile enough food on my plate. Tortillas, chips, cookies. Gimme, gimme. 

After we filled up on grub, I changed socks, thankfully, and, no, those white socks will never be the same again. This picture was after they had been washed in the streams twenty times during the race.


We milled around for a bit after we ate, checking out the overlook while we waited for more friends to finish the race. I visited the food table several more times as well. I could not get enough to eat, and the feeling lasted for about four days. 

The after-party was pretty much just food, drink, and story swapping. Nothing too crazy. Plus the lodge had a large fire burning to warm our chilled bones. 

Me and Randy post-race at an overlook in Cheaha State Park.

Swag: The tech shirts were simple and gray, which I really liked. I swapped mine after the race for a size that would work for my husband since they were men's shirts that ran even bigger than usual. Too big equals no good for me.


Because I wasn't going to get to use my tech shirt, I purchased one of the cotton t-shirts from this year's race for $10. The sizes were more standard on these, so I would actually get to wear it. Plus I liked the giant logo vs. the pocket logo on the tech shirt. I want my shirts to scream I am awesome from the other side of a room.


The wooden finisher's plaque was a surprise bonus. It has a little stand in the back so you can pop it right onto your mantel.


Overall: The cost for this race is $55 with early registration. It's the only 50K I've run in Alabama, but the rumor mill told me it was the toughest one. Especially if you catch a rainy weekend. Plus you get to run to the highest point in Alabama. I will definitely run this again. The adventure, scenery, and general awesomeness of the people participating will bring me back. I also love that they use Hammer products for the race, even though the Heed takes some getting used to. The race director is organized and very thorough with the information he puts out. If it says it on his site or in an email, you can count on it being a fact at the race. 

Alabama Outdoors sponsored my entry into this race. I received no other compensation for this review. All thoughts and opinions in this post are my own.