I went through several titles in my mind for this entry and so many seemed so appropriate: The Icecapades. Meteorological Shenanigans. High Anxiety on Ice. Cirque Du Monte Sano. The One That Almost Didn’t Happen… All of those would’ve been fitting but I settled on the above because seriously, I never expected that. Any time you register for a race you do so knowing unexpected things occur, whether they be personal reasons or conditional situations, sometimes adjustments have to be made and cancellations are a possibility when no other option is available. This race is notorious for being sneaky in more ways than one way, but very much so when it comes to weather conditions. 2016 would prove to be an extreme version. To quote the race director, “that was the worst course conditions I have seen in all 22 years of the Mist. I know, I have been at every one.”
The Lure of the Trails and of Mountain Mist:
Shortly after my first 5k, I accidentally discovered the trails one sweltering July 4th holiday when a friend suggested we vary our road routine and hit the Land Trust trails off of Bankhead Parkway. I remember hitting the little bumpy knobs of rocks on the Railroad Bed trail and thinking “why do people do this? This sucks, this isn’t running! I’m spending half of my time power hiking, dodging objects, trying not to fall, I can’t even decide where to put my feet. You could injure yourself so easily out here. I don’t get this. It is really pretty though….. SNAKE!!!” And that’s exactly how it happened, snake and all. We continued to get lost, very lost. With one 20 oz. water bottle between the two of us long gone, a few hours later we ended up surfacing on the other side of Land Trust near Governor’s Drive. I don’t think my road buddy ever hit the trails again but I was intrigued. I was irritated that I couldn’t navigate the woods like I thought I could but it was absolutely gorgeous. It was a sanctuary that held a totally different meaning as an adult than it did as an exploring kid out to play until dark. The same trails that frustrated me while running, trying to decide where to put my feet and establish a flow, would call me back again and again until I fell in love with it. I knew other people were out there flying through the woods with their little backpacks of water, I’d seen them. I knew it was possible and all of a sudden the road seemed boring. Really boring. Of course the element of potential danger was enticing and I could think of 500 reasons I wanted to be a trail runner. So what does one do then? Find trail buddies of course!
One of my first road running buddies had been injured running a little trail 50k called Mountain Mist and was sidelined for a few months which, while terrifying, also planted another seed of fascination. If it’s dangerous well that’s a no brainer, I want to try it too. I missed her on the weekends but she forwarded invites to me for group runs on the trails in her absence since she knew I was interested. I’m no introvert so once I realized which groups I could hang with, pace wise, I made friends quickly. Girls, guys, younger, older, hippies, yuppies, doctors, scientists, atheists, devout Christians, C.E.O.s, recovering addicts, stay at home parents, students, retirees, Type As, free spirits, all of the above. You name it, they were there and very welcoming. One common thread: all very highly motivated and intelligent individuals. I was really drawn to the distance runners and their stories though. As someone who has never really been fast, I realized I prefer distance over speed for myself. I remember asking my friend David “at what distance is it considered an Ultra?” Yea….. that’s what I want to do. As the stories unfolded, I realized most local Ultrarunners had a Mountain Mist story. I’d run pieces of the course but when connecting them together in my mind, it seemed quite impossible to imagine doing all 31 miles in one shot. That’s something only insane and super fascinating people do. “I couldn’t do that.” Or so I thought.
Fast forward and within 2 years’ time, I reached that level. I’d worked up to relay races and a road marathon and I wanted to see if I enjoyed taking it further. I heard about a little thing called the Grand Slam. If you read my Part 1 Mist blog, then you’d know that I did in fact attempt my first Mist in 2015 and that this race report is really Part 2 of that. Ok, so I have a lot to say…. Up to now, I’ve completed five 50ks and I am so ready for #6! That is, until I saw the 5 day forecast and realized winter storm Jonas wasn’t going down without a fight and there would be a monkey wrench. All week long, the scare tactics of the forecasts were coming on strong and it was a mad dash to the grocery store for milk and bread. Alabamians love their milk sandwiches I guess. By midday Friday, my little group already decided to position ourselves upon the mountain just in case the race wasn’t cancelled, and if it was we’d do an unofficial bandit run. With 490 registrants and some of them being locals with 4-wheel drive capabilities, there would undoubtedly be folks on the trails regardless. We’d trained for months and weren’t giving up on this. So slumber party on the mountain, woo HOO!
Surprise to us, through some sort of after-Christmas miracle, the HPD granted the race directors a postponement to hold the race Sunday. This is nearly unheard of. Complete cancellations are more likely. GAME ON. The ice on the roads melted enough for us to get ourselves home and relax Saturday afternoon and get prepared for Sunday. Honestly after all of the weather related anxiety and what-ifs, I felt mentally exhausted from the stressing. We still had “the Southeast’s Toughest Trail Race” to lay to rest, especially with the DNF monkey riding on my back so it was time to clear my head and get a good night’s rest. There was a teeny tiny part of me that wouldn’t have been totally devastated if it were cancelled but no, scratch that, there was a gigantic part of me that would’ve.
Upon arrival Sunday morning and just seeing the parking lot and roads inside the State Park, my A goal (7:30:00) went out the window. As did my B goal (7:45:00) and my C goal (8:00:00). I was looking at an ice rink with cars on it. In fact, I was too apprehensive to even drive up the mountain so I hitched a ride from a dear friend who’s step-Dad was kind enough to get us there. On the ice rink, we saw spectators busting their bums just trying to walk up to the lodge. When I realized we were going to be ice skating for more than a mile on the pavement before we could even go snow shoeing on the trail, my one and only goal became to finish. Just get that damn plaque. I want that damn plaque. This phrase would become my mantra for the next 8 hours.
Inside the lodge pre-race, there was a nervous buzz of craziness in the air. Delirium. We are all thinking the same thing, “how are we even going to get out of the parking lot?” Since this is inside a state park, the roads were not salted like the roads leading up to the park. In my mind, Nervous Nelly says: What if someone has to be airlifted out by a helicopter because they slid straight off of the mountain? What if I DNF again, is that how it’s gonna be with me and Mist, forever? Time to line up and face the music. After the starting gun, my first few steps are like a baby doe straight out of the womb. I’d put my foot down and wobble and hope for the best because sliding was the only result. I look around to see how other people are doing this and I’m seeing people struggling with balance, lots of surf moves happening. You know gravity always wins. Most of the day it goes like this until the sun melts the ice and it becomes a prime location for mud wrestling. Once you think you found a straight path that’s clear enough to get traction, you’re either dodging the next patch too slowly and you’re on your back looking up at the sky or the person in front of you is and you’re about to run them over. We were denied the luxury of having the first mile or so with passing room to thin out the crowd. It’s all still single file and it will remain that way for a while. Go ahead and make friends, get cozy with the person breathing down your neck because this may be your BFF in a few hours.
I’m with several friends as we set off so there’s lots of laughing, lots of falling and the nervous energy is starting to dissipate some mostly due to the fact that it took so much concentration to stay upright. It was a 19 degree start and if I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times. “Lindsey! I can’t believe you’re wearing shorts!” I hate pants and honestly I could’ve been wearing a tank top and I still would’ve been so focused on not falling that the temperature is the least of my worries. I joked that maybe because we had such a slow start, we’d saved some energy and would be able to pull off negative splits. Some actually did, but me? Nope.
I wasn’t falling as much as my friends, my problem was ankle rolling. It seems to have plagued me over the past 6 months. Right past mile 2, I decided it was time to pass some people and sure enough as soon as I did, BOOM. I felt the ground on the top of my left foot. That’s always a terrible feeling. It seems like once I roll an ankle, it keeps happening on the same one over and over so it’s always something I have to look out for. Roll#2 didn’t come until mile 6 but still, it was way too early for all of this rolling crap. I reminded myself of something very important I read in Travis Macy’s book, The Ultra Mindset. I know I’ve mentioned it before. It stuck with me and it’s come in handy on many occasions. His advice is to know when to focus on what you are doing and knowing when to focus on why you are doing it. Right now I know why, I don’t need to remind myself what my motivation is. I need to be concentrating on WHAT I’m doing, and that is mindful footing. No more rolling. Stay upright and move forward. Before I knew it, we were about 7 miles in and approaching aid station #1. I grabbed some Coke and tried to move through as quickly as possible but of course I’m not thinking and I take off in the wrong direction. I almost caught myself before a volunteer saw me and the poor guy following me. Doh! I thought about playing it off as “oh, I was going to go pee” but it wasn’t even worth making up a story. My follower scowled at me. Embarrassing but typical. From there we descend down Warpath Ridge and into a beautiful section called the Power Lines. Ooooohhhh I love this stretch. To me it’s one of the most gorgeous views on the Mountain and I typically don’t go there unless it’s part of a race course because the climb out on K2 involves passing through some private property (or so I’ve been told) and you don’t want to irk people who are nice enough to let 300- 400 of you and your friends traipse across their property. This stretch is also part of the Grand Viduta Stage Race, day 2 I think. It’s always a section I look forward to. Notorious for having the thick red mud that will suck the shoes right off your feet, today it was too crunchy too be an issue.
K2 as it’s called (I think on the map it’s Flat Rock Connector, don’t quote me on that) is the first of 3 major climbs on the Mist course. Honestly, it’s not as bad as everyone plays it up to be. It’s a baby bump if you know what’s on tap for the second half. Really. The reward at the top of K2 is going through Stone Cuts. Again, one of the coolest parts on the mountain. Some call it the buttcrack of Monte Sano. I can’t do it justice with words. There are places where even I, at 5’2, have to crouch down to pass through as to not hit my head. I don’t know how my 6’5 friends get through there, but they do! As I’m weaving through the cuts I’m hearing pieces of ice crackle and split and smash on the rocks. The ice stalactites are beautiful but all I can think is seriously, I didn’t make it this far to be impaled by an icicle because that is so something that would happen to me. I’ve traveled through my favorite scenic parts of the race and it’s time to get super serious about these cut-offs. The runners have thinned out enough that I’m able to pass when it’s comfortable to do so. I decide I don’t care what anybody else is doing, it’s just me and the 4:15:00 time limit. Last year I reached the Red Gate cut-off, the 3rd aid station at mile 17.1, in 3:45:00 but obviously it wasn’t happening today. I know I’m going to make it but with 10 minutes to spare, it’s too close for comfort. Once through, I start worrying about the 55 minutes I have to make it to the 4th aid station at 21.1 miles, the 2nd cut-off. You wouldn’t think it would be a problem to make it 4 little miles in 55 minutes but this is Mountain Mist we’re talking about! Hang tight, because we’re about to go through the suck fest that is Old Railroad Bed.
If there’s a great place to roll your ankle on this course, here it is! The good news is that it doesn’t last more than ¾ mile but it seems at least twice that. It’s all downhill, loose rocks ranging in size from doorknobs to basketballs and it’s a crapshoot as to which ones are anchored. I’ve learned most aren’t. It’s always a sigh of relief when you get to hang a left onto High Trail. Usually at this point in a 50k, I start with the “less than half to go” coping mechanism but that won’t work today. There are still 2 HARD cut-offs ahead and it would be counterproductive to think of anything but making it to mile 21.1. Don’t think past that just yet. Luckily, I’d been running off and on with my friend Casey most of the time. We’d yo yo our paces a little here and there so it was a huge comfort knowing I had someone to talk to to ease my stresses. Besides, this is the part where it all went wrong for me last year. Terribly wrong. (Again, you can read all about that right here) We are now approaching the intersection of High Trail and Bluffline, also known as”Lindsey’s Corner”.
I know we’re approaching the spot and as I peek through the trees I see a board hanging at eye level, about 4 feet wide and 3 ft tall. Guess who is on the board….. ME! We are dying laughing, I’m doubled over. I really didn’t think he’d do it! Ryan had joked about putting a life sized cut-out of me at the intersection but this is even better. His daughter made lettering to read “Lindsey says turn right!” Come to find out later, this joke provided many exhausted runners with a laugh, a little bright spot to lighten the mood before the gigantic climb ahead. It was seriously the highlight of my day. I didn’t take my phone with me because I knew there was no way I’d have time to pause for pictures but now I regret that decision. I’d give anything to have a selfie with myself in that moment!
Luckily both Kim and Suzanne took selfies with my sign so I’ll settle for that. On Monday, Ryan was able to retrieve the sign so I was very pleased when he presented it to me as a souvenir. I don’t know that I could’ve made that 2 (ish) mile walk back into the woods the day after!
Moving along, I start with the runner math in my head and it’s not looking awesome. I start to have doubts, like for real doubts. I know it’s not that much further so Casey and I press on until we start hearing System of a Down’s Chop Suey blasting through the trees. WAKE UP! GRABABRUSHANDPUTONALITTLEMAKEUP! Again, we made it with 10 minutes to spare and that’s still too close especially knowing what lies ahead. One of the volunteers takes my pack and fills up my 1.5 liters and I tell her how much I love her. They laugh at my excited squeal when I see a of a bowl of ibuprofen. I grab 2, shove them in my mouth with some crackers and head to Waterline.
I’ve always felt bad for people in a sarcastic way when I realize they’ve never been through Waterline. The pain is mutual but I’m secretly smiling at their suffering too, I won’t even lie. It looks worse in person than it does on the elevation profile and right now the really tricky parts are still dotted with ice or slathered in mud. After what seems like a steady mile long climb, you’ve reached the intimidating vertical part. This is without a doubt the most technical climb on Monte Sano that I’ve seen. Even though a rope is made available on race day, it’s not going to help me today. I notice Fire & Rescue Squad folks standing at the top and I immediately assume the worst. People are backed up like a check out line at Costco and there’s no possible way to skip around even if I was feeling brave. I decide surely they’ll extend the cut-off time due to the psycho conditions but not so… this is Mountain Mist! Cut-off times are without exception. People are considered done done done if they miss it by 45 seconds. They don’t play.
It may have been sheer exhaustion, fear, I don’t know where it came from but I turned around and looked at the girl behind me and said “WHAT the %@*% ARE WE DOING?” Just like that, it flew out of my mouth and I had to apologize to a stranger for my language for the billionth time that day. It was my turn to go. Immediately I saw it flash in front of my mind’s eye, the worst outcome. I was about to slide 30 feet down and take everyone out with me like a bowling ball, all of the poor unsuspecting pins lined up below me. Of course that didn’t happen but having envisioned it, I told the same girl to step back as I swung my legs and hoisted myself up, grabbing at whatever rocks, exposed roots and trees that are stationary. All I’m able to do is grab and slide, grab and slide. At that point one of the rescue guy helpers had to tell me to try to climb a little over to the left, where to pull and what to push off of. I said “thank you for making those decisions for me. I can’t adult right now. I just can’t…” They all laughed and I expressed my sincere appreciation before I continued huffing and puffing my way to the top. At one point I looked at my Garmin and it wasn’t even registering pace, that slow. And no I was not standing still, I was moving! Now that the scary dicey part of the climb was over with, it was just the miserable part that never ends. That-cut off though. That cut-off.
Five minutes to spare before the last cut-off and we made it. I say “we” because I was running with a small group now and I’ve never met these folks but we bonded a little over our misery. A few were locals who had done Mist before so they knew what was coming in the last 6 miles (only a 1000 ft. climb out of the Hollow, no biggie) but a few others had no idea and were just completely in despair when they asked and I gave them the honest answer. One woman was totally over it. Done. Ready to give up. A few times between the first cut-off and the third, I’d pass someone and reassure them with a “good job” and I had more than 2 people say “I’m dropping at the next aid station.” It’s funny how when everyone else starts a downward spiral, I’d go up or at least make a big effort to stay up. It’s as if one of us has to be ok so I’ll take that role. It’s like when you’re drinking with your friends and you realize your group has gotten way too overboard and “festive” so someone has to be the sober(ish) one. That’s me right now. Keeping it together!
Knowing I’m less than a 10k away, I feel better. We’ve hit the bottom of McKay Hollow, an area known as Slush Mile. I’d broken away from my earlier group and ended up running solo for a while until I came upon a local I’d never met who also did the Grand Slam last year. We talked a little bit and it helped pass the time. At this point I wasn’t worried about my finish time because I knew the quickest and only way out was through that finish line so I’m soaking in all of what just happened and trying to enjoy what’s left regardless of my empty tank and fatigued state. I’m going to finish Mountain Mist. Wow.
I can’t say anything in particular hurt, I was just plum exhausted like everybody else. I’m not used to having to think about where my feet should land so having to do that all day long, I am beyond mentally exhausted. My brain is so tired from being in a constant hyper-aware state that the things hurting on my body aren’t even registering yet. (That would come Monday with a vengeance!) None of that matters in this moment, the satisfaction of knowing I would finally complete Mountain Mist far outweighed any physical pain. Nothing feels better than hearing the music and the crowd cheering. I know it’s coming so I try to practice my “not crying” face. I’ve crossed the blue and red mat and it’s ok to bawl like a baby now. The same fast friends who usually finish before me are always there when I cross the finish line waiting with a smile. They know who they are and I’m so grateful for you!
Back inside the lodge, it’s a lot of congratulations and hugs and swapping war stories. A little bit of eating and lots of rehydrating. I was delighted to find out that a few of my friends absolutely kicked ass on the course and had phenomenal finish times despite the conditions working against us. Sadly, a few friends did not finish. That’s part of the lure of Mountain Mist though, you never know what’s going to happen. It’s unpredictable on a different level than any other race I’ve experienced. At the end of the day, of 490 registrants, 193 did not start, 39 did not finish and 258 finished.
It would be a complete oversight to wrap this up without expressing my sincere gratitude to Dink and Suzanne Taylor, the race directors, for making all of this possible. Not just for organizing but for going to great lengths to convince local law enforcement to even allow a postponement. That’s nearly unheard of. Big thanks to Gregg Gelmis for always sacrificing his time and comfort to be out on the course photographing all the action. I try to give credit where credit is due so I’d say the majority of the good photos you see here… Gregg’s work! Also a gigantic thanks to the hundreds of volunteers that it takes to make these things possible. Until you’ve been on the volunteer side, you have absolutely no idea. It does take a village, as the saying goes. As Huntsvillians, we really are fortunate to be the host to an event so wonderful, something we need not take for granted. We’re a city known for our engineers and rocket scientists (rightfully so!) and I love to think that maybe we’re coming to be known for things like Mountain Mist and Grand Viduta.
As I was whining to my Mom on Monday about how insanely terrible I felt she asked me if I’d do it again. I said “are you kidding? I will absolutely do as many Mountain Mists as my body will let me, every year if I can!” She shakes her head at her crazy child and smiles. Though I run simply for my own sense of satisfaction, it doesn’t matter how old I get, one of the coolest things in life is hearing your parents say “I’m proud of you.”