Sunday, July 2, 2017

Chattanooga Stage Race: 3 Days, 3 Mountains, (roughly) 60 miles

After a long day of travel and "travel eating" pre-race I really wasn't sure how this weekend would go. My training had been great until I actually trained too hard 3 weekends prior, which had sent me into an unplanned hard 3 week taper and felt generally very poor. The plan had gone from "Do my best" to "Just have fun and make sure you don't overdo" since I was and am still riding the my edge of healthy. I knew I would have no trouble with distance, but was poorly trained for the heat. 

I arrived at my friend Chris' place, in Chattanooga around 9pm, got settled, showered, said hellos and went to sleep. Morning came and I was excited! My energy level was pretty good. I had a PB&J and a cup of coffee for breakfast. I arrived at the start/finish with plenty of time to check in and get settled. I started looking for the people I knew and those I was looking forward to meeting. Turns out we'd parked right next to each other by coincidence. I met Liz Canty, Chris, and Franklin and it made for a pleasant start to the weekend. We enjoyed the usual pre race banter as we got ourselves ready to go.

 Day 1. Raccoon Mountain 

An easy 16.5 ish mile start on mountain biking terrain. We head out and down hill. My ankle that I was worried about was fine on the trail. I felt like I was running very easily, but thought that was a pretty good thing since I hadn't been feeling too hot the weeks leading up. I also had very minimal prep for any heat or humidity. So overly comfortable seemed perfect. 

I was trotting along, losing my breath on the climbs and on the descents and flats trying not bite Liz's heals too much, I was really enjoying the comfy pace we were doing but I knew I really should get out and go. Liz eventually made the suggestion that I move along and at that point I did. I felt good, I  was happy to literally get off her back so she could run her race... And then, me, well, I actually felt very good. I felt like maybe I should have been going a little harder earlier, but in a stage race...who knows? It wasn't long before I was on my own and rarely saw other runners.

I was loving the trail bouncing along just enjoying being out there, working hard mentally to stay focused on my heart, my breathing and my gait. After all, this was day 1 and I couldn't afford to actually race it... So I just ran like a normal training run, took my time enjoying a Muir Energy blackberry thyme gel and was happy my body felt good. 

Miles 9-12 climbed a lot, it took a toll on me and felt hot, a little weary so I began moving gingerly and decided to take in some more calories. I feel enjoyed my Fuel 100 Salty Cocoa bites and I was keeping on, keeping on, but certainly not going very fast at all... And then BOOM! Miles 12-15ish were all downhill, sharp drops into winding looping descents, I was loving it, but was still feeling the overall heat and humidity. Realizing I still hadn't finished my 24 oz of fluid by then and hadn't stopped at any aid stations, I realized too late that that was not the best decision in a stage race. Having already passed the final AS, I made a mental note to do better tomorrow.

 2 hrs 17 min later I finished, first female and saw the smiling face of Jenny Baker, I hadn't seen her since my epic failure at Georgia Jewel 100 the prior year, but we'd stayed in touch and she'd suggested I come out and run this race. She is ALWAYS smiling and kind and I was grateful to have a friend waiting at the end for me.  I had my first cup of Spring Sports Nutrition Electroride and it was like love at first taste. We waited anxiously for Liz to come through the finish. Soon enough Liz was finished and we sauntered over to the ice bath where a couple guys were already chilling. I got in slowly and was really impressed to watch Liz, socks and all just climb in like there weren't actual ice cubes floating around.

Notice how she looks so comfy and I feel like I'm freezing

We enjoyed some post race food and company. I got to meet a bunch of new people and ran into some known faces, like Tyler, my pacer during "our epic failure" at Georgia Jewel, it was nice to catch up and hear about his upcoming awesome adventures. By noon-ish the crowds were clearing and everyone was headed to rest up for day 2.

I went back to my Chris' place in Chattanooga and hung out eating granola and being a bit concerned about my hydration. My lack of smart hydration choices left my tummy knotted up. Something I can easily manage for 2 days, but I'd need to be a lot smarter to make it 3 days in the Tennessee heat. A beer and some very frustrating attempts at origami with Chris' daughter later I was enjoying some fresh made spinach linguini with roasted veggies and my all time favorite running fuel, bread.

I rolled my legs out and went to bed for 10 pm. Wouldn't you know by though, Chris was also having two doggy guests for the weekend and they were not so happy to be on vacation, they cried ALL night long.  I tried many ways to cover my head and ears. At 3 am I finally downloaded a white noise app and Chris had actually just separated the two dogs and we all got some much needed rest.

Day 2. Lookout Mountain

I woke up feeling less tired than I expected to and I didn't feel sore, achy or anything negative. I had some granola with BP& blueberry preserves and a cup of coffee while I finished checking my bottles to make sure they were secure and wouldn't leak all over me. I left for Lookout Mountain, only 15 minutes from where I was staying. I couldn't be more jealous of my Chris for living this close to these trails, mountains and views.  I drove the curvy roads up to Lula lake, where the start and finish would be that day. 
I really did feel good, but I planned to go out easy and get nicely warmed up. On my training B2B2B runs it took me about 5 miles to feel good each day, so assumed this would be the same. Meeting at that start line with Liz, her husband Luke (there supporting), we prepared to run. 

Everyone took off flying, I was mentally, like "OMG, I'm gonna die today" but instead I widened my stride and made sure not lose step with Liz. It ended feeling pretty darn good within the first half mile and I just went with this hard pace, knowing Day 2 would set the score for Day 3. Then as quickly as we started we were all walking up a steep climb, an equalizer, a vertical gain that is literally not runnable. It was fun to watch the entire race field halt to stop and scurry up. Once we peaked we still spent the next couple miles enjoying a low grade climb with some amazing views, followed by a mile of descent leading to single track trail with rolling twisty turns that popped out at the bridge over the creek located at the start/ finish area, which was also the 1st AS.

Myself and the other couple guys I was with ran through and kept going, crossing the road and jumping back onto trail, we headed mostly upwards for what felt like a very long time. I was still holding a strong pace but I was feeling the climb, despite really strong hill training and I could feel the heat. I sucked down my fluids and had a Muir Energy Cashew Lemon- So Good! I felt better in about 10 minutes time and that really helped me ride out feeling challenged in the first half.  Winding through the forest on very runnable surface was mostly pleasant, but I was truly looking forward to the 10.8 mi AS so I could cool off a bit and just stand still for a moment. The AS was conveniently was placed at the top of a power line climb, steep crumbling footing that feels just short of runnable... you know you could run it, probably, maybe...but the loss of energy is never worth the couple of minutes you'd save. So hiking up in the sun I was excited to refill my bottles with water and get some Spring Electroride. I also was ready to have my cooling neck tie do-hicky soaked so I could test it out and hopefully feel cooler despite the rising temperatures.

I ran out of the AS looking forward to some easier miles and was happy to find them. There was little more power line work and the trail seemed like I recognized it long before I did. Mentally, I knew I wasn't as sharp as I'd hoped to be, I kept hoping the miles were ticking by faster than they were. I was anxious to rush through the rest of this run, but I knew I still had to remain calm and collected, not making any stupid energy, nutritional or injurious moves. I enjoyed my beverages and tried Fuel 100 Salty Vanilla and found them to be easy to eat, somewhat fun and interesting flavor. They worked well and kept me going.

Finally, back through the 1st and now last AS. I actually believed it was only about 4 miles to the finish, we just go up and come down I thought. Apparently that's how it used to be, running the first loop backwards, but it was a bit more interesting this year and took all of us by surprise. Randy and Kris added a bit more to the course, making it much closer to the expected 22, coming in about 20.5 miles. 

After pushing myself up the up and nearly running off the edge of that steep ascent from the start of the race, we then were running on some more winding wavy trails that brought us down near the waterfall climbing down steep wet rock face, again slowing the times of every runner. In this section jumping from rock to rock my left shin bounced and slid again a rock edge as my right landed on the next layer down. I stopped long enough to see the damage, a 2 cm chunk of skin was removed as though it'd been shaved off with a razor. Other than the pain from the direct hit in the shin it was tolerable and I kept moving, but it threw me off and about 5 steps later I rolled my right ankle and sat on my butt for a minute analyzing the new pain to see if I was really injured, but I was fine, and also to check my myself- in the mental aspect. I regained my focus and finished the descent only find a set of 2ft wet rock/ wood stairs to climb straight back up.
 I love this kind of stuff, the stuff that tries to break you. It's like the trails are just messing with you, just for fun. After struggling up the stairs we ran some more windy wavy stuff and popped out on the gravel road that leads to the finish. Just before you get there you cross a creek in up to your knees. That felt so good! Wading through there successfully and then getting my legs moving for the final stretch and coming in strong for a 3:13 finish, and successfully held onto 1st place for the women's field. (Not nearly the 2:45 I was looking to hit, but the added 2 miles of slow descent and climb were more fun than finishing early!) 

Again, I found Jenny smiling at the finish. I started put more fluids in while we waiting intently for Liz to come and then headed straight for the creek to wash away the heat and struggle from the run. It was a gorgeous hot sunny day and as we sat we cheered for the runners going across the bridge for the final loop, still out there in the growing heat, still working hard. 

We ate some more food and then I went downtown and went paddle boarding with my Chris and his kids. We didn't go far, which was good since I'd asked him to go out, but as I was driving there was quite certain about, I was sleepy and thought that if I really wanted to run well on Day 3, I should be napping…BUT…Best race ever vs Being a good human.... I'll always choose the latter.  I was glad I did, I got to just sit outside enjoy a beer- mostly to keep the calories going in and enjoy good company. Pretty much a perfect day... only to get better. 

After paddle boarding I showered and drove up to the Baker's amazing place for dinner with some of the people I'd met and few other new faces. We chattered on about life, running and mostly running, my favorite topic. Dinner was full of good veggie fuel for Day 3 and the feeling of being a part of a running family made for a rather amazing spiritual experience. As a suburban Maryland mom runner medical person who trains and runs alone, talks running mostly through social media and cannot wait until my son can crew for me…feeling like I have people to really connect with in my passion for trail running is utterly priceless. A wordy way of saying thank you to the Baker clan and extended runner family for inviting me!

 Day 3. Signal Mountain

 After a much better night's rest I was up and feeling a bit stiff but surprisingly well. My joints, even my annoying left ankle was holding up very well. My stomach felt calm, but very hungry. I repeated breakfast from the day before as it worked pretty well and made my way to the final day start/and finish line. I had plenty of time pre race but wasn't sure how the timeline would play out as far as driving back to Atlanta for my flight out so I'd brought everything with me, so I took some time to repack my wet yucky stuff/ let some of it lay out to dry for the day. I got myself ready only to realize one my Nathan bottles had broken, the straw was falling out, so leaking everywhere. I mentioned it to Liz, wearing the same pack, NATHAN Vapor Howe 4L  but using a bladder with it and I was so lucky she had her soft flasks with her and was willing to let me borrow.

I laced my shoes, got myself prepped and decided for the first time, EVER, to run the race in a sports bra. I honestly don't own enough running gear to race 3 days in a row, as I now know, and it was going be hot and humid again, so why no? I pulled my very stinky NATHAN vest on for the last time and just hoped everyone was as stinky. Couldn't wait to wash everything from the weekend properly at home. 

 At the start line, runners huddled around trying to stretch out the kinks and tight muscles as best we all could and then finally we were off. The first mile was a bit of blur, people didn't seem to go out like they had on day 2 and within a few steps I knew I felt good. I also knew we were about to take a pretty sweet downhill section and I consider technical downhill my greatest strength so I just went for it.

Pulling ahead I was in 4th place overall, I actually worried me, but my pace felt fun, comfy, so I didn't hesitate. We flew down and jogged up, then rolled down hill again to the turn around and climbed right back up. I was keeping up with Franklin, he'd gain a few hundred yards on the accents and I'd catch him on the descents.  After getting back up to mushroom rock the trail was thin but very runnable single track trail that just keeps you rolling right along with it. 

I was very hungry, very early, so I went through my liquid calories and had a Muir Energy Blackberry Thyme again, my favorite thus far. I had no negative feelings by about 10 miles in, even I couldn't believe how well I was feeling. At the next AS I caught up to Franklin who had me go ahead, which was a little stressful in the moment, after all, I knew he could take off whenever he wanted and I didn't want to slow him down, but he insisted. So we jogged and talked career, we then hit mostly boulders and we climbed all over them, keeping our footing and our balance. The company was certainly a treat since I rarely run with anyone in a race after the first couple miles.

In no time, Ry caught up to us and joined our hiking and conversation. We climbed some stairs and made are way up the next AS. From here Ry and I both watched as Franklin bounced down the paved road leaving us in his dust. We both laughed a little, commenting on how fresh his stride looked and how much he'd clearly been holding back in the previous section.

 Ry and I ran, hiked and edged some small cliffs together for the next few miles hitting intermittently very runnable chunks and very technical chunks of trail (the kind that beats up your mind. You think, "yes, I can finally run" followed by "OMG, does this stuff ever end" over and over.)We discussed my love of or increased patience in races due to "collective suffering"... The idea that just about every runner on day 3 would feel that similar mental struggle as they are slowly but surely approaching the end. 
At the next AS, having already eaten my Fuel 100 Salty Ginger, which I think were my favorite, especially being eaten with Spring Nutrition's Electroride which has some ginger in it... Yum!! ... Well anyways I was so hungry again, so I took a couple "licks" of Spring Nutrition gels that had been squeezed out onto small pieces of paper cups. It was delicious, I felt great, hot... But not overheated nonetheless, I let the AS volunteers drown me in cold water anyway, it was awesome and refreshing!

From there, I new we were close, about 4 more miles, so I kicked it up and got back into running pace, now that we'd cleared all the technical stuff. Ry didn't come with me. Within minutes my stomach was telling me I was still hungry! But I was almost done. I finished strong, Flynn came up behind me 500 yards from the end, I tried to go with him but had decided too late that'd it be fun to sprint it out so he took 4th by a few seconds. I still managed first female in 3:19.
It was slower than I'd planned by about 4 minutes, I figure in hindsight that was easily lost being more social than usual.... But I wouldn't have changed that. The company, the trail and the weather made Day 3 a blast! Soon enough we were placed on the podium to receive a 6 pack of Chattanooga Brewing Co beer featuring the race.

The day ended with some photos, lots of hugs and best wishes. I wished I could have hung around to watch every last runner complete the day's challenge, but my flight home to see my kid was not going to wait. 
On my trip back to Atlanta had the pleasure of visiting Jackie and Jeff Merritt and meeting their poodle Bernie, it was a short visit but it was nice to see Jackie again after a couple years since we've actually been seated in a race together and to be able to wish her luck at WS100 (Which went pretty well for her F7!)

Final notes

Huge thank you to the Randy and Kris Whorton for an amazing event. Thank you to all the volunteers for a very well run event. The courses were well marked and well supported. The trails were everything they were promised to be. The ice baths were a bonus that I really enjoyed!

Thank you to Jenny and Franklin Baker for their kindness, for recommending the race and for your general awesomeness!

Thank you to Liz for keeping me on my toes and your kindness too! Congrats on a kick a$$ race as you just added 60 mi weekend into your training plans (like it was nothing) for your 100k. 

Race Fuel:
Muir Energy - natural, delicious, no GI distress
Fuel 100 bites
- tasty break from gels, hard not to spill while running
Spring sports nutrition- first time tasting it and I'm in love! No GI issues, but need to try it some more
GQ6 hydration- I love the Re-fuel, always keeps me going and I can add it to anything since it's flavorless 
Tailwind- always a simple choice, yummy and easy to drink without any negative effects for a while, after about 3hrs its not quite enough for me, but some people can go all day!

Milestone Pod-  shoe pod, $25, that lets me see my trail distances, cadence, ground contact, stride length and more, its changed the way I run and helped me prevent injury while becoming more effecient
Nathan Vapor Howe 4L- my newest hydration gear and the only one that hasn't caused severe chafing or shoulder cramping. Bottles not so great, they both broke that weekend, less than 2 mo old.... But the vest itself is Amazing!!
Topo MT2- light weight, beyond comfy, my favorite shoes!
Topo Terradventure - slightly more substantial trail shoe, better for muddy trails / slick rocks and a little more support for gravelly running surfaces. My other favorite shoe :)
Balega socks- nice thin light summer pair did the trick and supported my feet the first 2 days, moved up to a more cushioned pair for day 3- perfect socks, no hot spots, no blisters

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