January 19, 2016

Lookout Mountain 50: everyone should run this

Well, everyone who wants to run all day long, that is.

Getting there: We stayed in downtown Chattanooga so that my family could take advantage of all of the fun to be had there while I was running. Museums, climbing, good eats, places to watch Star Wars. It was a bigger haul than we thought to get to the race start from downtown, with lots of twisty turns for the carsick-prone. On the way out of the race, I actually almost vomited. Because I was trying to read texts on those curvy roads. Combined with race exhaustion, that was a horrible combo.

Race start: I picked up my packet the night before at the brewery, but they didn't have shirts available yet. No problem because they were at packet pick-up on the morning of. Everything was organized and fast, plus they had snacks and a fire. Neither of which I used but was grateful for the option. I dropped one bag in a pile to be hauled to mile 34 and dropped another in a pile at the start/finish, which we would run back through at mile 22. It was nice to be able to drop a larger bag at the start/finish. Because they don't have to cart them anywhere, they don't really care about the size even though it says they do on the site. I used that start/finish bag to stuff my jacket that I wore up until one minute before start time (because it was freezing!) and my post-race clothes, plus all of the things I would have put in a traditional drop bag.


Weather and clothes: The temp was about 30 at the start of the race, but I knew it would warm up quickly once we started running. The high was set to be 45 that day. When we were in the shade on the west side of the mountain, you didn't really feel that 45 degrees (frozen legs!). I spent some of the day without gloves, but I had to wear them at the beginning and intermittently in the middle. For most of the race, I wore a short-sleeve shirt, removable sleeves (arm warmers) that covered my hands, shorts, toe socks to keep away blisters, a buff around my neck, and my BUTS hat. Also sporting this pack and this watch, and in love with both. Once or twice, when the sunlight hit us hard for a brief moment, I rolled down my sleeves. In summary, we had the most perfect weather that anyone could dream of for this race. 

Frozen before the race start.

Comrades: A few of my friends from Birmingham were running that day, and I was able to spot one before the race (TJ!!).


About three minutes into the race, I ended up beside the other one (Bradley!!). Happy trail coincidence. We stayed together almost half of the race because we got in a long line of folks going down and up the mountain. It was perfect because we were both trying not to trash our legs in the first half of the race by getting too optimistic about pacing down the mountain. 


And besides the friends I already knew there, this race was overall so positive, full of folks there to laugh and have a good time. Maybe towards the front of the pack things were a little more buttoned up and serious, but I was running at a speed that enabled me to get on and off the party train several times during the race. Party train = multiple folks in row willing to chat it up and make jokes with total/semi strangers while potentially experiencing intense pain from ultra running. 

A damn long chain. 

Also of note, up to mile 22 the course felt somewhat crowded, and I wondered if it would thin out ever. It did for me after 22. Things spread out a lot, and I often ran alone with the occasionally seeing someone for a few minutes.

The course: Stop what you are doing right now, and put yourself on the email list for this race. It is so gorgeous.

As you head out from the start, the sun is just starting to break its way through the trees while you pick your way carefully past jutting rock faces on the right and steep I-better-not-trip-here-or-I-die drops on the left. Sprinkled throughout the rocks and trees are loads of baby waterfalls. Some that you can easily jump over, and some that take a little more effort to avoid soaking your shoes.

Sunrise on the way out.

Once you come off the single track, you wind down some wider service roads to the bottom of the mountain. There was actually another race the same day as Lookout Mtn 50 that made some intersections a little confusing (for the easily confused, like me) because our flags would go one way and a giant arrow would point the opposite way. Just enough of a juxtaposition to make you go hmmmmm, say what, and maybe pause for effect.

Off the single track.

There's an aid station at the bottom of the mountain that gets you fueled for the climb back to the start line at mile 22. It's seven miles from that aid back to the start line, but two of those miles are serious hikers. For my Birmingham friends, think Yellow/White connector, only longer.

Once you go back through the start (yay for a drop bag with lots of snacks), you head out in the opposite direction for some new trails. So the race loops one direction and then back in the opposite direction for new trails. Between the start line and Lula Lake were some of the muddier spots along the course and some water crossings that required me to get my feet wet. No choice but to jump in! 

But the reward is Lula Falls and the best snacks of the race at the Lula Lake Aid Station. The waterfall was breathtaking, especially when you are already out of breath to begin with, and the folks at this aid station were hilarious and helpful. Around this point, runners started running towards us on the trail, which is the first time I realized that this portion of the race is an out-and-back. I had read the aid station descriptions before the race, but didn't put those pieces together that the aid stations they were describing were the same ones from before. So it is clear for everyone in the future of Lookout Mountain-ing, the second half of this race is an out-and-back. Do not be confused when runners start racing towards you on the trail!


After the race, I kept seeing pics of folks climbing a rope, and I could not figure out where the heck the rope was on the course because I didn't remember climbing up one. Thank you to the course photographer for solving that mystery. Turns out I opted for the hands and feet option because I never noticed the rope. Ultra marathons, ultra focus. Do not let yourself be distracted by frivolous things like ropes!


If there is any course where I didn't mind an out and back, this was it. When you hit this overlook of Chattanooga (and beyond!), you have to, I mean HAVE TO, veer off trail and take a minute to enjoy that view. Another breath taker! 


From there you wind through very soft single track and a tiny section of asphalt road to your next drop bag. Which means more snacks! And a contemplated change of socks, but I decided to skip changing them because at this point I felt so close to finishing, although it was still hours away.

Next up was a circle around some private land that makes you feel like you might be the only person left on earth. Once you get around that loop, you are back to the aid station with your drop bag and headlamp, which seemed unnecessary because I had some high hopes of getting back before nightfall (did not happen!). 

From there, you just retrace your steps to home. When I realized this, my mind immediately started to categorize what I would see next. The soft Hobbit trails, the see-forever overlook, the massive waterfall, the Jedi trail, the creek that you have to get your feet wet in, the muddy low trails, the red rolling hills, back to the finish! It all seemed so simple, like playing connect the dots with my memory's trail markers. 

Stopped again, for another deep breath and a panorama this time.

The brightest spot on the way back was definitely the Lula Lake Aid Station. Again, shout out to them for making it fun and being helpful and having hot soup. 

About to ugly cry? Over seeing an aid station with happy people. And soup!

Thank you, happy aid station volunteer, for turning my headlamp right side up before night hit. It is highly likely that I would not have figured that out at mile 45. Brain mush at that point.


More mental trail markers. My family was watching the new Star Wars while I was running, and I still have not seen it! The shame.


I got to the clearing and rolling red hills just as the sun was setting. Another spot to stop and take it all in. This was the point where I thought, I could keep running. If I needed to. Not that I wanted to, but physically, my sore ankles were still functioning. Although my toenails all felt like they were going to fall off, but I was sure that had already happened and was not worried about it after hour eight. Plus I hadn't gotten gut sick, which is a Tailwind trail miracle. 


But even though a mile out I felt like I could keep going, as soon as my feet crossed the finish line, I was majorly done! Like sit-down-and-not-move-for-a-few-days done. But immediately my kids were like, we want a snack, can I have a frisbee, give me a doughnut. So I changed my dream of not moving for an hour to hobbling away after a few minutes. 


My race: My finish time was around 10:30 for the race, and I was super happy with that because it gave me the qualifying time I needed for Vermont 100, which I just registered for this weekend! Sticking with a pack of runners for the first half of the race to stop me from going out too fast worked perfectly and is a strategy I've been trying to use more often. Because most all of the humans try and go out too fast and burn up their legs too early. It's in our programming somewhere. 

Even better than decent feeling legs was the fact that my stomach did not revolt at any point. I drank Tailwind (which I put in baggies to pick up at the drop-bag points) the entire race and ate snacks and gels and gummies in addition to that when I felt like it, eating early and often and making sure to grab something at every aid station plus have something on me to eat in between aid stations. The hot soup at mile 42 was so baller. Thank you again, Lula Lake Aid Station. Pretty sure I will never again taste such heavenly saltiness. Ultra hunger makes food taste so amazing. Or sometimes so horrible. Either way, so I'm glad it went the amazing way.

For my family, I turned my phone on airplane mode between aid stations to save battery life so that I could text them and let them know where I was along the course and when they needed to come back and pick me up. Also, it gave me the chance to send them lots of awkward selfies, like this!

Uh, what, huh. I'm tired and climbing a hill. Holla back.

And thank you to all my friends who sent texts and messages. I read them during those long hill climbs and laughed. And maybe cried too. Because I cry happy cries when I run over 30 miles. 

Summary: Do this race, everybody everywhere! You will not set any speed records, but you will at least have a chance to be entertained by nature the entire way. If you let yourself. But don't go out too fast! It is so easy to do, and you need your ankles for some muddiness later. And try and get lucky with weather like we did, because I don't know if I would have loved it as much in freezing rain. And you get a warm hoodie at the end from Wild Trails, and for that, I will always love them. As a recovery activity, definitley go to Rock City and be slightly weirded out by the gnome caves and gardens.

Bonus: I ended up not losing any toenails even though my first and fifth toe toenails on both feet felt like they had been ripped off with the teeth of an angry adult shark on meth.

Bonus takeback: Literally five minutes after I hit publish, one of my toenails fell off. I cannot make this stuff up. Well, I could, but I didn't. And I have the scratchy old disembodied toenail rolling around on my bed to prove it.