Monday, January 26, 2009

Another Night Spent In The Woods…

I heard the bushes rustle just off the trail to my left. I turned to see what it was; expecting to see yet another spooked deer. All of sudden there was this black and white blur coming right at me! I had just enough time to crouch and cover my face when WHAM I was struck in my left calf and nearly knocked down! I uncovered my face and turned to my right to see a coyote go somersaulting off the side of the trail, flipping and flipping. It finally came to rest, got up and glanced briefly at me and then he was gone in flash; crashing through the woods…



Sometime around mid afternoon on Friday the 23rd of January, 2009 I received a phone call from my good friend Josh Kennedy another local ultra-runner. He’d gotten wind of my plan to start at midnight that night and run the entire Mountain Mist 50km course over night and then gather myself and start with the other 300 folks to run the actual race for a total of 100km of running. He called to wish me luck but I sensed a slight hesitation on his part; as if he wanted to ask me something. I gambled and asked him, “So you want to go too?” He didn’t even hesitate when he said he did! Okay so now I’d have some company. Then it got real strange, just a couple hours later I receive an e-mail from another good friend going to school down in Auburn, John Nevels. He was wishing me luck and wanted to know when I was getting started. I thought hmmmm? So I e-mailed him back and told him my plans and then, as a lark, invited him to join Josh and me. Within minutes I get an e-mail back confirming my suspicion. He’s in too! Alright so now I won’t be going it alone like last time I did this. I didn’t really need the company but heck why not?

In 2006 I completed the first Double Mountain Mist. This time around I wanted to do it a little differently so I decided for the first “Loop” we’d run the entire Mountain Mist 50Km course (http://www.huntsvilletrackclub.org/index2.htm) the opposite direction in which the race course follows; the so called “Reverse Mountain Mist”. Thus I dubbed this adventure the “Reverse Double Mountain Mist.” So promptly at Midnight on Friday the 23rd of January, 2009 we were off. Blake Thompson (close friend and confidant), a last minute addition, joined the three of us so we were four strong as we headed out into the moonless night.

It was unseasonably warm as we started down the McKay Hollow trail (the locals call this last climb Shelter Hill) and I was second guessing the weather report which called for a cold front and rain to be coming through sometime that night. Just in case I packed an extra thermal layer and a light rain/wind jacket. Still it seemed like over-kill as I was already sweating pretty well! Our first wildlife encounter took place as we neared the bottom of our first descent. Leading this pack of crazy runners I swept my head-lamp to my left and down the bluff below me. I was slightly shocked to see at least 30 pairs of glowing amber eyes staring right back at me! It was a huge group of deer all settled down for the night. Strangely they didn’t get spooked and run; no they just sat there and followed us with their eyes as we descended past them. They must be used to odd bi-pedal creatures with lights emanating from their foreheads coming by in the middle of the night. Not long later on the relatively flat mile that followed this descent we came across a big, fat skunk fleeing down the trail ahead of us! The silly thing just kept right on going down the trail until finally it cut to the right at headed into the woods. Good thing he didn’t decide to turn around and skunk us! It felt like a summer night’s run as we made our way deep into McKay Hollow and up, up, up the Natural well trail in the stagnant air. Still as we topped out and made our way towards Monte Sano Boulevard the wind started to pick up a bit which was supremely refreshing! I’d made out a schedule to try and keep us on pace to cover the first Loop in around 6 ½ hours but we were already a bit slow to this first waypoint. No problem; the schedule is just guidelines but I didn’t want to be finishing up the first loop with no time to regroup before the 8:00 a.m. race start!

So we crossed Monte Sano Blvd. and approached the most difficult section on this course; the infamous Waterline trail. This extremely steep, all fours type climbing trail comes after 24 miles of hard race running, but tonight we were going to have to down climb it, in the dark! What a surreal experience to cast your lights out and down and not have the inky black void pushed back one iota! Carefully we descended the more treacherous first quarter mile. No major problems here we continued on down the more gradually sloped but equally rocky trail. A while later we lost contact with Josh as he made a pit-stop. He said he’d catch back up so the rest of us decided to walk until he caught back up. Well we kept walking and walking the next mile or so and no Josh. Well what to do what to do? Josh is a tough Army dude, WestPoint Grad and veteran combat helicopter pilot; he’d be alright. So the rest of us decide to start running again. We were already falling well behind schedule and I didn’t want to slip anymore. We kept on, covering the rest of the Land Trust trail system at a fairly decent pace. We could tell the weather was starting to change because the wind had really picked up and we started to experience some slight drizzle. As we turned up the Toll Gate trail (part of a former rail-road that once brought tourists to the top of Monte Sano Mountain) Blake told me he was going to cut out at Fearn Avenue (the halfway point) and get some rest before the race. He seriously doubted that he’d be able to finish the race if he didn’t get some shut-eye. I didn’t blame him so John and I said our fair-wells to Blake after we re-supplied ourselves at the Fearn Ave. crossing. Blake headed back up the road and to my house to crash on my couch.

So now it was just John and me. Who knows were Josh was, but we suspected he’d tough it out but we weren’t going to wait around to see. The next 8 miles or so went by without comment. John and I talked about our work and school (it seems we had a lot in common between my work and his studies at Auburn), talking about anything but running! What a relief! We had just started along the Goat trail when I spotted a light from across the hollow, it was Josh! He was too far behind to wait for but we whooped and hollered back and forth to each other just to let each other know we were doing alright. John and I cruised on and then sometime around 4 a.m. the wind kicked up again and the bottom fell out of the sky and it began to sleet and rain a bit more heavily (it kind of drizzled most of the night). Mercifully it wasn’t very cold out (as long as we kept moving) and the precipitation was never very intense. I was now glad I brought some more clothing! The only navigational uncertainty we had came as we negotiated the Powerlines section of the course. A confused meandering of double track power-line utility and ATV trails, the Powerlines can be confusing enough to follow in the daylight but it was even more tricky at night and running the opposite way this route is normally run. Still we didn’t get lost but our frame of reference was off and we just had to take it extra slow; going from marker to marker until we got through. As we entered the Warpath Ridge trail (leaving the Powerlines) I stopped at pointed my light up to the top of a group of trees right on the edge of the woods. I pointed out to John a large step-ladder that dangled from the top of one tree; this was debris from a killer tornado that ripped through Huntsville many years ago.

After this pause we headed up the long ridge line trail, headed back up to the Monte Sano plateau. It was still raining off and on but not very heavily, the wind was brutal however so we just tried to run up this trail to keep warm. Soon we topped out at O’Shaughnessy point, the site of the 1st checkpoint and aid-station for the race. Strangely nobody was here at 5 a.m. so we continued on covering the boring “mileage filling” route on top of the plateau before, thankfully, dropping off the plateau once again on the race’s name-sake Mountain Mist Trail. The rain turned heavy again and was mixed with a fair amount of sleet. Still we were keeping warm enough and we only had a few miles to go before finished Loop number one. Somewhere in this stretch, just as the sky started to lighten up (no spectacular sunrise this morning) I pulled a bit ahead of John, who was dealing with his own personal demons. I was going along minding my own business when…

I heard the bushes rustle just off the trail to my left. I turned to see what it was; expecting to see yet another spooked deer. All of sudden there was this black and white blur coming right at me! I had just enough time to crouch and cover my face when WHAM I was struck in my left calf and nearly knocked down! I uncovered my face and turned to my right to see a coyote go somersaulting off the side of the trail, flipping and flipping. It finally came to rest, got up and glanced briefly at me and then he was gone in flash; crashing through the woods…

Wow! My heart was crashing, the adrenaline was pumping and I just whooped and hollered to John who had just missed witnessing this encounter! However just a few minutes later another coyote sprang out by John (not tackling him thankfully) so he became a believer! Rather anti-climatically we crossed the Mountain Mist starting line at around 6:50 a.m. amid confused looking racers who had just arrived for the big race. Not bad, after getting further behind my 6 ½ hour schedule than I’d have liked, John and I covered the last 17 miles a bit quicker to only finish 20 minutes behind schedule. We didn’t stick around the starting area but quickly walked the quarter mile back to my house to refresh. About 20 minutes after we’d gotten back to my house Josh came rolling in. I apologized for leaving him behind and he proceeded to explain what happened to him down on Alms House trail. Apparently after completing “his business” he somehow tripped and fell pretty hard; enough to send his head lamp flying into the woods and knocking the batteries everywhere! In his own words he said he “…had his bell rung.” So it took him some moments to collect himself in the dark before he realized he had another, still operational, flashlight in his hand! So he spent some time collecting his smashed head-lamp and locating the scattered batteries before he finally got going again. Of course by the time he got rolling we were long gone. Sorry Josh!

So the 8:00 a.m. race time was drawing near as Josh scrambled to re-load and re-dress. We weren’t about to just leave him again! Still with plenty of time to go we sauntered back over to the race headquarters at the Monte Sano Lodge. One Lap down, one to go…

This time around I would be running with my wife Kathy and a little bit rested Blake. We were all chatting away with fellow friends when there was a collective “Oh –hit!” when a gunshot unexpectedly announced the official race start! The herd of nearly 300 runners started to mosey on (the elite guys were already long gone); Kathy, Blake and I soon lost sight of Josh and John behind us. Josh was pretty tired but supremely motivated to finish; John on the other hand was convinced he was going to just get to the first aid-station at O’Shaughnessy and drop out! We all tried to encourage him before the start but the ultimate decision would be his to make. At any rate the early miles literally just kind of crept by; this was a fairly new experience for me starting this race so far in the back. Can you say conga line! Boy I hated that, I didn’t want to run fast but I didn’t want to run in a long line either. Still there wasn’t much I could do so we just kind of dealt with it and passed people when we could until finally we had a little more breathing room by the time we got back around to the first aid-station. Leaving O’Shaughnessy Point and heading down Warpath Ridge we quickly caught up to more of our local running friends. It was so much fun to cruise along in the morning sun, joking and carrying on (probably really annoyed some of the other runners around us, sorry). We even all did “the wave” as another friend got our picture.

Doing the wave! (I started it but I'm behind the guy in the front center!) photo: Steve Carter

Wow what fun! The rain had gone, and the sun was out (almost the total opposite of the weather forecast!) and everything was going great! Not much else interesting occurred; the rest of the run was pretty much a mental blur. It wasn’t so much the physical challenge as it was the sleep deprivation angle. By the 8:00 a.m. race start, Josh, John and I had all been awake for 26+ hours! So this was the mental effort of a 100 miler but with far fewer miles to cover! Kind of surreal to feel so tired after running much less mileage! So finally, after a few down-spells, including an accidental self-induced stomach volcano brought on by the mixture of fizzy Coca-Cola and a large dose of table salt, I finally finished; some 14 ½ hours after I’d started. Whew! I was glad to be done but ecstatic that I got to share this adventure with so many good friends. Both Josh and John struggled a bit more than I but never the less they persevered and finished about an hour and a half later just getting in under the 8 hour rule . So now I’ve done this thing twice; what’s next? I’ve already run a traditional Double and now the Reverse Double so what else is there? Well in the words of some wise guy after I’d finished the Double back in 2006, “So when are you going to do a Triple?”

My best buddies: Blake and my wife Kathy. At the finish! photo: Dink Taylor

Fellow Reverse-Double finisher, Josh Kennedy and myself (I couldn't find John Nevels, I think he might have already passed out somewhere! ;) ) photo: Dink Taylor


i As the first person to do a Double Mountain Mist I felt it was my right to establish a few “ground rules” for all future Doubles :

1. Each “Loop” of t he Double had to be run in a time no longer than the race cut-off time. This has been agreed upon as being 8 hours.

2. A true Double consists of running the course, in its entirety (in either direction), before the actual race; a double consisting of running the race and then running the entire course again DOES NOT COUNT.

3. The attempt may not start any earlier than Midnight the night before the race.

4. No matter how fast one runs the first Loop it will be an 8 hour Loop since the race starts at 8:00 a.m. Therefore total finish time is 8 hours plus your official race finish time. For example if I started at midnight and it took me 6 hours to finish the first Loop and then I ran 7 hours in the race my finish time would be 15 hours. Therefore it is in your best interest to not just blow through the first loop since it only counts as 8 hours no matter what.