If I had to choose only one word to describe the city of Chattanooga, it would be “gorgeous”. I’ve never seen a city quite like her and I believe it to be a well kept secret. I use the word secret only because it doesn’t feel like it has quite the stress level and sticker shock that other attractive cities in the Southeast have grown to display. While everyone else is going nuts over Nashville, I’m happier jumping in a car for a short trip northeast to the Scenic City, aptly nicknamed. You have to see her trails first hand because no words can do it justice.
Since being sucked in to the world of Ultras a few years ago, the Stump Jump 50k has been on my radar. I registered this past spring under the assumption that, because it’s billed as one of the premier trail races in the Southeast, I’d have lots of other friends who would sign up as well and we’d all pile in the car and make it a big race-weekend field trip. October is one of those months where you can easily fill your training schedule with a different race every weekend and I usually do. As it would turn out, my friends found other races and events that weekend so… a solo-tripping I would go. My friend Megan would be running the Yeti 100 Endurance Run in Virginia (also on my radar!) and several friends were doing Ironman Maryland (definitely 0% chance of ever being on my radar). I did have 3 friends headed to Stump Jump but they already had travel arrangements so I hoped to find them among the crowd when I arrived. At first I was a little bummed out then I decided it would be kinda cool to be a solo traveler. Everyone needs “me time”.
I departed around 2 on Friday to give myself enough time to avoid most of the traffic and get to packet pick up at the Rock Creek North Shore location at a decent time. When I entered, I quickly felt like a kid in a candy store! Coincidence that it’s conveniently nestled next to a Whole Foods and a Fleet Feet? I think not! After eyeballing some things for both the Christmas wish list and shopping list, I decided it was time to head back across the river to the Residence Inn. I unpacked the car and got settled before heading out on foot to locate a bite to eat and enjoy the scenery of downtown. I’ve never actually dined alone in a nice restaurant like that so dinner was awkward and the server got a little ‘tude when she realized I would be taking up a 4 top for just me, myself, and I. Or maybe it was because of the 4 glasses of water I asked for? Date night carb loading, party of one! Despite the awkwardness, I enjoyed the food and atmosphere nonetheless because it was a beautiful fall evening, I was grateful to be in the city and looking forward to the race. I walked around the river front and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the Three Sisters Bluegrass Festival before turning in for an early evening.
Everything was laid out for the morning. My clothes and shoes were ready, my pack was chilling in the fridge and my bags were by the door for a quick load-up. I had coffee in the coffee maker ready to go, a necessity. One last thing before bed, check the ultralive website one more time to see how Megan was doing at Yeti. I’d looked up her stats a few times that evening already, I knew nothing else would post until the wee morning hours. I looked forward to the surprise of waking up to check progress. Hopefully I’d see a finish time listed then take my happy self up the mountain to jump some stumps. As I turned off the television and closed my eyes, I could hear bluegrass music drifting down the street. I felt like I was missing a party but I knew mine would begin shortly. It was just a slightly different kind of “party”. A pain party.
My alarm went off at 5:30 am so after securing The Coffee in my hands, I strolled over to the ultralive website. Inspiration comes in many forms and if receiving notification that your friend just earned her 3rd buckle isn’t inspiration, I don’t know what is! Feeling inspired, I knew it was going to be a good day. As I turned in my room keys the gentleman behind the desk said “where the devil are you going at this hour, dressed like that?” I pointed to my race bib pinned on my shorts. “Signal Mountain, Stump Jump of course!”
I drove up the long, narrow winding road to Signal Mountain High School and the steep drive in itself was my first indication that I was probably about to get my ass handed to me on this course. The road just kept going up, up, up like Jack and the Beanstalk and then even further up until I saw a man with a flashlight in the middle of the street directing us to the parking area. I walked to the start/finish line which was about a quarter mile away. I scoped out the field of runners then decided I’d be better off in my car avoiding the chill. As I walked back, I heard someone holler my name. I found David and Martin sitting in Cary’s truck and they invited me to come sit. I was quite relieved to see friends right now! We shared some laughs and good conversation until it was time to make our way to the starting line. Out of nervousness, I stupidly started asking technical questions about the 6000+ ft of elevation, etc. and quickly decided that wasn’t the best idea. It is what it is, I’m about to find out for myself!
The course begins on the road, just enough to spread the crowd somewhat. As we crested the hill and took a right, I saw a lady in a devil costume and pitchfork directing us into the woods. She’s snickering, “Welcome to your hell!” Oh boy. First thing off the bat, the fellow behind me starts belly aching. “People, are we really going to run this pace the whole time?” I tuned him out but I really wanted to ask him why he didn’t line up in the front of the pack since he’s Speedy Gonzales. After 10 minutes of hearing about his master’s degree and Ivy League education and Hoka collection, I was relieved to see the course open up to a wider downhill section. I too felt somewhat stuck in a group of folks who were a little more intrepid on the downhill than I am but I wasn’t complaining. It’s totally fine to be cautious, I used to be more like that so I get it. This downhill was a good spot to kick it up a notch but still pass the polite way. “On your left, thank you!” A large group of us passed and I started easing into a comfortable pace. Speedy-pants (well.. pants in a bunch, really) was long gone. Where I had been in a conga line of about 20 people just 10 minutes ago, I was now alone on the trail. Where did the other 350 folks go?!! The bizarre part was that this would happen for the next 8 hours. I was either in a large clump of runners or completely alone. I’d spend the whole race leap-frogging with many of the same people. Some would come flying out of nowhere and others would pass me only to be passed hours later. There was no consistency other than things were going to be completely inconsistent all day long.
I heard someone choking and peered around the trail to see a young lady doubled over with her hands on her knees. She began slowly moving forward with her hands on her head. I stopped to ask if there was anything I could do to help and all she could do was cough and shake her head. She recovered soon enough to tell me she was only choking on water so I was relieved. She thanked me as if she couldn’t believe I cared enough to stop for her but that’s just what trail runners do. After a proper introduction, Sarah and I struck up a conversation and ran together for a while. This was her first 50k and I told her she picked a hell of a “first”! We too would leapfrog back and forth the entire race, often providing company during some of the rougher parts.
The Bridge! Somewhere around mile 9 there’s an amazing old foot bridge. If you’ve ever googled the race, images of the bridge are bound to come up. I’m leaving one here for you because it’s beautiful. It’s also quite a bit springy and feels like you’re surfing across planks laid upon a cloud. It’s like when you’re a kid and your Mom tells you not to jump on the bed but it’s fun so you do it anyways. There’s a sign that says “maximum of 20 people” but I’m pretty sure we packed it with 40. It became that much more exhilarating, you know, breaking the rules and being all dangerous. We’d get to cross again on the way back. I have to say it was definitely one of my favorite parts of the course.
Early into the race, I heard several runners speak of “the Rock Garden”. By the time I’d completed one third of the course I figured out that my day would involve rocks. All day long. Nothing but beautiful breathtaking views and ROCKS for days. So where was this “rock garden” and if the entire course was rocks, how would I know when I found it? Would there be a sign? Oh I’d know soon enough. I was absolutely kicking myself right now for not carrying my phone so that I could take pictures. Several folks were pausing for selfies at one of the many scenic overlooks. After spotting 3 or 4 of these impressive overlooks, it struck me that the whole course was a photo opportunity. I was worried about cut off times so I didn’t want to tempt myself to dilly-dally. I wouldn’t necessarily say cut-off times are generous (maybe so to faster runners than I) but come to find out I didn’t really have anything to worry about.
I managed to stay ahead of cut-offs by 45 minutes. Now I’m slapping myself, feeling like a fool trying to rush myself through the scenery when I should really be pausing to enjoy the beauty. In that moment, I tried to absorb as much as I could. I made a conscious decision to “be present”. If I can’t stop for a picture then I will let this atmosphere soak in as much as I can and take some pictures in my mind’s eye.
A wise friend once told me “don’t look where you don’t want to go.” Meaning, when there’s a steep drop off inches away from where your feet are falling and you can’t even see the bottom of the forest, don’t look there. I found myself peering over the edge several times and imagining what would happen if the unthinkable happened. DON’T LOOK WHERE YOU DON’T WANT TO GO! But seriously, I’ve never been on trails with edges that steep. I’d look out over the trees and see an old country road in the distance. It was so tiny it looked like a little grey ribbon dropped on the floor, the cars smaller than ants on the ground.
I didn’t know until after I’d finished, but the course is shaped like a barbell. I mean that in a Pablo Picasso kind of way, just look at the picture. It’s two badly drawn ovals connected by a shaky piece in the middle. As I got further into the course, I began recognizing familiar spots but I couldn’t piece together how this was taking shape. I just knew it wasn’t a lollipop and it wasn’t an out and back. Friends have told me that the course was changed in 2014 and that this “new course” was harder with an added 1000 ft. of elevation gain. I began assessing what I’d already seen and decided (at that moment, anyways) that this race is much more difficult than Mountain Mist. But ask me that in January when I run Mist for the third time and I’ll probably change my answer. Either way, it’s a toss up depending on who you ask.
The aid stations are superb and well stocked. The pre-race instructions are also very accurate with the list of aid stations and at what mile they are located. I have to say my favorite was Snooper’s Rock. They had pickles and they were blasting Gin and Juice. What’s not to love about that?! You always need a laugh during any race.
I kept wondering about this Rock Garden and BOOM I knew as soon as I hit it. All I can say is that it’s like this: you ever played Yhatzee? You know how you scoop up the dice in both hands and shake and shake and shake so hard that when you release them, sometimes the dice fall off of the table? Imagine that God had a handful of several hundred rocks. He’s shaking them and lets them go in the middle of the woods. Rocks the size of large pick up trucks, that is. Boulders. There is to be no running in the Rock Garden and if you claim that you can run it, I’d like to see it. Pics or it didn’t happen. It’s a crap shoot as to which of the smaller rocks are attached and which ones are loose cannons waiting to help you with a face plant. It’s beautiful but extremely frustrating. I think that was the thing about this race that stuck with me the most; there is no rhythm. When you find a runable section it doesn’t last long so you’re constantly changing your strategy. To each his or her own, but for me that was the biggest challenge. Adjusting to the inconsistency and lack of rhythm.
Knowing there was a Mtn. Dew in my drop bag accessible at mile 24.6, Mullens Cove, I was able to bribe myself to hold on. I was daydreaming about that caffeine. When I exited the trail and approached the tent covering the drop bags, I saw a slew of folks sitting on the ground in a daze as if they were pulling out the last little bit of anything they had left in the tank. I guess that magic drug I call Mtn. Dew did it, but as soon as I took off I put the hammer down. I found that this was the first time on the course (with only 8 miles to go, why so LATE!??) that I was able to find that rhythm I’d so desperately been seeking. I caught up with Sarah again and we yo-yoed some more. I was finally passing people again. They looked like death and I supposed where I saved something in the beginning, maybe they’d gone out too fast. This was the point where I knew I was going to make it. Even if molasses pours faster than I ran my first Stump Jump, I was feeling good now. And I was hungry. It hit me like a ton of bricks. MUST. EAT. ALL. THE. FOOD.
I continued to tick away the remaining miles until I saw a runner approach from the opposite direction. “Only two miles to go!” I said “please dear God tell me we don’t have a mile to run on the road once we get there, do we?” “No, I promise. I’m not just saying that. No more road.”
I saw the beautiful arch that is the finish line and the rows of people cheering and clapping. The guy in front of me had a family waiting there for him and his two children ran up to greet him and cross the finish line with Dad. I smiled as I was presented with my first Stump Jump medal and immediately began hunting for the food I’d been told would be there. The sweet gentleman at the grill made me a black bean burger (my fave!) and I ate like it was my last meal on Earth. My friends had already departed so I took a seat at a picnic table with the guy from Nashville that I’d encountered in the Rock Garden earlier. As we reminisced about the day’s events, he asked me if we had any good races in Huntsville. “Mountain Mist, of course!”
It was a long ride home, the kind of ride where you have to pull over to stretch your legs and let your sciatic nerve scream and cry a few tears. I felt like a country bumpkin hitting the Mapco on the way home for beer, with my dirty scabby trail legs and flip flops and white feet but once I got home I sure as hell wasn’t leaving again. That night as I sipped on a Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale, I told my husband never again. Not doing that one again. I’ve since had a couple of weeks to reevaluate that statement and of course, we all know I will inevitably end up “needing” to go back and see how much time I can shave off my second time around. Stump Jump stands as my “PW” 50k finish time (personal worst, 8:56:21) but surprisingly, I can’t say that that bothers me. I am happy to have legs and I am happy to pay good money to suffer through these ferocious things. We’ll see what the future holds for me and Stump Jump. Our first date lacked chemistry but I’d consider a second date for sure.