Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Snow Day and the Brahma Bull

My story of the 2011 Mountain Mist 50km
What possessed me to focus my training on the Mountain Mist 50km this year? I can’t really pin my reason on any one thing.  I think that regularly training with several like minded folks really helped make my decision easy though.  Late last summer I began to join the guys at work for their Tuesday Lunchtime Track Beat Down.  I struggled mightily at first as I hadn’t done any structured speed work in years, let alone set foot on a track since my collegiate track running days.  But I couldn’t resist, I was feeling burned out of my routine and wanted to do something different, train with some other folks, work to improve my speed.  So after taking on the 335 Pinhoti Trail last May and half-heartily scrapping by the Lean Horse 100 Mile in September I went back to basics.  Cut my weekly mileage back significantly, cut down the length of my long run and began to do more speed work and tempo runs.

Over the weeks that followed I saw my short distance speed coming back and even raced some of my fastest 5 kilometer races in years!  What really capped off my decision to train seriously for Mountain Mist came after I set a personal record (my first personal record in over a decade!) in the half marathon in November.  I was now really confident that I’d gotten my speed back now it was time to incorporate a little more distance and start getting my trail legs back.
Thus began the semi-weekly ritual of Track Tuesdays and Thursday Trail Tempo runs.  My workouts on the track and trail steadily improved.  On the weekends during the Mountain Mist course training runs I’d focus on pushing the main down and uphill sections at race pace or faster; just to build confidence.  So by the time January 22nd rolled around I was ready to go!
My pre-race goal was to prove that I could get back to the sub 4:20 performances which I’d run four times previously.  That was it.  My personal best at Mountain Mist is 4:11:13 (2002) and I’d run 4:16-4:17 three times.  I knew that today’s Mountain Mist 50km course has changed significantly* since 2002 and that a sub 4:20 would be on par with my previous bests.

Race Day

With the crack of a rifle shot, 308 runners began their journey of 50 kilometers from the Monte Sano Lodge.  As we surged forward in the chill January air, I felt a huge release; it was as if a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.  Weeks of hard training and nightmares were now past; it was now go time, a wonderful opportunity to see what I could do.  This year the trail conditions were optimal (in my opinion). There was about an inch of grippy snow on the ground (in most places) that provided pretty good traction and, most importantly, the normally muddy ground was frozen solid which made for a very hard and fast course.  At any rate, for the lead pack this was going to be a road race today! 

Thirteen years ago when I first ran this race there were 132 finishers and the race field wasn’t nearly as competitive.  As a result, back then, the first mile on the road was typically an easy warm up jog before we’d get down to work once we hit the trail head.  So much has changed.  This year, that first mile on the road I felt like I was running a 10km and I was in a huge pack of runners!  I knew I didn’t want to be caught behind a bunch of folks when we hit the narrow, single track, trail so I went along with the craziness and tried to stay near the front of the pack.

Once entering the woods onto the snowy single track it became clear that the pace wasn’t going to let up any.  Ahead, the top three runners, David Riddle, Josh Wheeler and Hal Koerner were already almost out of sight.  There were a couple of unidentified runners following hot on their heels and then a large chase pack of mostly my local training buddies: Eric Charette, DeWayne Satterfield, Blake Thompson, Tim Vincent…  On the icy decent down Walnut Hill (Cold Springs Trail) I took the middle line while most took the typical right line and so I ended up briefly ahead of our group, with Eric still out a bit ahead of us.  Across the closed road the chase pack had thinned somewhat, ahead I could just catch a glimpse of the 5th or 6th runner, then Eric and I believe David Rindt. 

The steady climb up the Mountain Mist trail seemed to pass by very quickly, I felt pretty good (far better than I did at this point last year when I was woefully out of race shape) as we emerged back on top of Monte Sano.  The next couple of miles are perhaps my least favorite part of the course as we follow flat, mountain bike trails along the top of the mountain; initially heading away from the first aid station and then, after a hair-pin turn, heading right back to it.  On the other hand, this is a good place to pick up the pace as this is some of the easiest mileage we’ll see all day! 

I passed through the first aid station at O’Shaughnessy Point (6.72 miles) right at 47:30 (7:04 min/mile) along with seven other runners.  Without even stopping at the aid station, I began the treacherous decent down Warpath Ridge where I’d fallen a year ago during the race and sliced open my knee!   I had no such issues this year as I made pretty good time dancing down the steep, rocky incline; moving ahead of Eric, Tim and David in the process.  DeWayne, Blake, and others were not far behind as we cruised down the easier part of the beautiful ridge line trail heading towards the Power Lines part of the course.  As we continued the gradual, rocky descent, Eric and I talked about how his foot was mysteriously numb and chuckled at how a group of local runners had gotten lost in this section a few weeks ago at a trick, upcoming, intersection.  I obviously jinxed myself because all of a sudden I looked up to see orange tape in front of me indicating, that yes, I too had led our small group off course and onto the Red Lizard Trail!!! Doh!  Luckily we caught the error immediately, but not before an amused DeWayne blasted by us; laughing.  (Unknown to us at this point, but strongly surmised as I write this, two of the runners that were ahead of us are believed to have made this same wrong turn and continued downhill on this trail.  Looking back at the race splits, we observed these two runners checking into the previous aid station a minute or so ahead of us and then checking in to the next aid station behind us; we never passed anybody.  The second fact was all the side trails had orange tape strung across the trail.  To take a wrong turn you had to physically pass through the tape; the tape I saw on that side trail was indeed broken!)

Finally back on course, now in the back of our thin pack, we emerged onto the dreaded Power Line section of the course.  Historically this has been one of the muddiest sections of the course.  Normal mud is bad, but this is red Alabama clay and when you mix in all the grass along the path you can end up with adobe bricks on your feet by the time you reach the turn off of the Power Lines!  Thankfully the ground was frozen solid and we made very quick time through this section.

Off the Power Lines and into the woods once again the trail begins to roll up and down leading to Goat Hill (a.k.a. “KT” or “9 mile hill”).  David surges ahead on the climb with me and Eric trying to follow in his wake; just behind us DeWayne, Blake and Tim.  This is first really challenging, extended climb on the course and I’m surprised to feel pretty good all the way up.  I don’t try to push it, or surge, just stay steady and by the time we top out and make the turn on to Goat Trail we’ve gained a bit of ground on David and Eric and I have separated a little from the rest, though we’re all within a minute of each other a this point. 

Goat Trail is a nice, gradually level to downhill section that is normally quite rocky and often times a bit tricky.  Today with the added snow it seems faster and less technical.  At any rate, we make good time here and I begin to really warm up.  I started the race wearing two long sleeve layers: a light weight first layer and a thicker, mid weight, outer.  Eric suggests I can probably remove the outer layer now and give it to his girlfriend, Ann, at the next aid station.  Great advice, I didn’t realize how much I was sweating until I finally, struggling, got my outer layer off.  I immediately felt a lot cooler, but that was a good thing.  While I was trying to get my outer layer off, Eric had surged ahead, David Rindt just ahead of Eric.  A short time later I arrived at the Three Benches aid station (11.94 miles) at 1:28:48 (7:26 min/mile).  The last 5.22 mile section took 40:44 (7:48 min/mile) and felt pretty good, not too fast, not too slow; just right (I still had a long way to go!) I see Ann at the aid station and hand her my outer layer (a bit sweaty, sorry Ann!) and quickly speed out of the aid station and onto the circuitous Keith Trail. 

As I work my way along the trail that circles around the back side of Golan Heights and Panther Knob, I gradually close the distance on David; Eric is still well ahead but not out of site completely.  Not far behind me now is DeWayne, and just in earshot behind him are Blake and Tim.  So we’re still a loose group at this point.  After a mile or so out of the aid station I catch up to David and decide not to go around him.  I was really chomping on the bit to go by, but I knew how far we had to go still and knew my best bet was to bide my time until the next aid station.  So I throttled back a bit and just enjoyed the company as DeWayne closed the gap as well and Blake and Tim drew closer; Eric was almost out of site ahead of us.

Soon we were past where the Keith trail turns into the Logan point trail and in no time we were making the turn, uphill, to the Stone Cuts.  David pushed up the hill which I was thankful of as I really felt a bit too slow at this point; Tim and Blake had caught back up to us.  We topped out on the climb and began the traverse over to the Stone Cuts.  I noticed the pace began to pick up once again as David led the way.  We turned into the Stone Cuts and carefully worked our way through the narrow rock passage ways and tunnels; there were quite a few icy spots that had to be traversed.  As we exited the last tunnel and turned to go up a short steep hill to leave the Stone Cuts I spotted Eric at the top of the climb.  We all pushed up the hill and over the ridge line and began down the steep rocky Stone Cuts trail that would take us down near the Three Benches aid station, thus completing the circuit.  Shortly down the hill there is a blow down across the trail.  I decided to use this situation to my advantage and so when David zigged to the left to go around the blow down I hurdled the tree and made my pass.  I accelerated down the rest of the hill, gradually gaining ground on Eric.  David and company were just a short distance behind me. 

We cruised through the Sinks Trail and back up to the Mountain Mist trail at a pretty good clip.  Eric was just ahead now and the rest of the gang was right behind me in talking distance.  We crossed the closed, barricade road and began the climb up the Cold Springs trail to the third aid station, Fearn Avenue (17.27 miles).  On the last pitch up to the aid station we passed by a couple of friends, Jennifer Carter and Kim Susor, taking photos of us.  It was nice to see some familiar faces!  Eric was now just ahead as we all entered the aid station at roughly the same time, 2:12:23 (7:40 min/mile).  The last 5.31 miles took 44:10 (8:19 min/mile), looking back now I was right in feeling that this section was a bit “slow.”  But no matter, the Mountain Mist veterans all know that the race starts after Fearn so everything you did up until this point is simply “window dressing.”  The hard work was about to begin!  Anyhow I had my first fault of the day, as I tried to open a zip-lock baggy containing my First Endurance E.F.S. powder (to refill my bottle with) I tore the baggy open and the powder went exploding everywhere!  Doh!  Oh well, I managed to get some powder in my bottle, refill with water quickly, grab a GU and I was off; just in time to witness DeWayne climbing over the orange gate at the road for his 17th time!

I knew what was coming next, but knowing didn’t make it any easier.  Like a switch being thrown, DeWayne tore off down Tollgate trail with Tim following close behind; Eric was just ahead of them at this point.  I knew this was decision time, to I go after them or do I maintain pace.  I knew to run a really fast time on this course one has to take chances, to risk it.  As Turnus shouted in Virgil’s “Aeneid”, “Fortes fortuna adiuvat” or “Fortune favors the bold”, I shouted inwardly and decided to roll the dice! 

Our pleasant 7:40 min/mile pace suddenly turned into sub 7:00 min/mile pace as we charged, recklessly, down the old rocky, rail road bed alignment.  It was now DeWayne ahead with Eric just behind followed by Tim and then me (now recovered from my aid station mishap).  I believe David and Blake were just behind me but I’m not exactly sure how far back.  As we turned off of Toll Gate Trail onto High Trail, Tim pulled over to let me by.  I thanked him and wished him luck (for all I knew I’d be seeing him again shortly if I imploded!).  Just a quarter mile along the gradually descending High Trail, I caught and passed Eric.  Eric passed on some encouragement as I went by: “Go get him!”  I just kept my head down and tried to keep the legs spinning, trying to keep the gap between me and DeWayne from growing.  As we neared the end of High Trail I realized I was closing a bit and as we turned off onto Bluff Line Trail we were together.  DeWayne nodded and we, together, hammered down Bluff Line Trail, still at a blistering speed (it sure seemed like it to me!).  The steep, technical trail suddenly leveled out and we relaxed slightly, even chatted some, as we cruised the remaining mile into the fourth aid station at the Land Trust Parking Lot (21.01 miles) in 2:42:21 (7:43 min/mile). The last, mostly downhill section (3.74 miles) was covered in 29:58 (8:00 min/mile) which isn’t bad considering how technical most of the route is, and on tired legs.

At the aid station I grabbed another GU (for later) and kept on, with DeWayne following right behind; nobody else was in sight behind us.  We’d broken contact and aimed to keep it that way, so we pushed once again along the rugged Rail-Road Bed Trail (like running on a rocky creek bed!) for the next mile.  The first part of this trail doubles back along the trail we’d just come off of (Bluff Line) and I glimpsed Eric passing by, above us.  Shortly after we saw Eric, we were hammering along and I tripped on a rock and crashed face down onto the trail!  I wasn’t hurt at all as the bottle in my left hand took most of the impact.  Unfortunately for me, the valve in my bottle was opened and a freezing jet of watered down E.F.S. jetted into my face!  Ha!  I yelped in surprise and scared DeWayne.  He asked if I’d hurt my knee and I said no that I’d got my face soaked by my bottle squirting in my face!  We both busted out laughing and got back to running along the technical path.

It was eerily quiet as we cruised along the rest of Rail-Road Bed and into Alm’s House Trail.  I truly didn’t even feel like we were in a race at this point.  We were just two good friends running along at a good clip on yet another long training run.  That was pretty cool and calming for me as I knew what was in store for us just ahead!  All too soon the calm was over and storm began as we made the sharp left turn onto the infamous Water Line Trail.  DeWayne pulled over to the side and encouraged me on saying that had rather have me go ahead at this point that he just wanted to survive the climb (that DeWayne, always making excuses! ;) ).  I think he just hoped I would burn out on the climb so he could pass me a bit later!  Regardless, I was still feeling pretty good so shuffled steadily up the easier, initial incline.  I pulled a little bit ahead of DeWayne on the lower part of Waterline and increased the gap a bit more as the runnable trail suddenly turned into a Class 3 scramble uphill!  This is the reason they say nobody runs all of Waterline trail!  I was red-lining; my heart beat a wicked time in my chest as I scampered slowly up the steep, slick ascent.  I felt like I was barely moving, legs moving through molasses, but I was getting close to the “top” now and just kept pushing, up, up, UP!  At last I made the turn off of Waterline, but all the veterans know that the climb isn’t over; it’s just not as steep! I don’t dare risk a look back as I slowly shuffle up the remaining hill (actually the end of Bluffline Trail). 

The night before the race, at the pre-race dinner and briefing at the Monte Sano Lodge, DeWayne gave all those in attendance a very heartfelt, motivational speech; a pep talk.  In DeWayne’s speech he compared running the Mountain Mist 50km to hiking to a nearby pond to fish as a youth.  That the trip to the pond filled him with joy and promise just as the early miles of the race would hold for us all.  However, on the route back from the pond DeWayne had to cross a fenced field that held a Brahma bull.  He knew he’d have to be quick on his feet to avoid being gored by the bull. This danger symbolized the struggle and pain associated with the back half of the Mountain Mist course, that you’d better leave “some in the tank” to make it through unscathed and to the finish (home).  Don’t pace yourself properly, you might end up gored by that Brahma bull!

So it was with DeWayne’s motivational speech whirling around in my head as I approached the fifth aid station at Monte Sano Boulevard (25.04 miles); the Brahma bull just out of sight behind me!
I rolled into the aid station right at 3:19:20 (7:57 min/mile), the last section (4.03 miles) took 37:00 (9:11 min/mile) which wasn’t bad considering that killer climb up Waterline!  As I entered the aid station a couple of friends informed me that I was in 4th place!  What?  I’d passed nobody but the people in my group since the beginning of the race when there were 5 runners ahead of us before the first aid station.  I thought I was in 6th place, at best! What’s more, that Hal was “only” 5-6 minutes ahead!  Well, I knew of Hal, his reputation as a very strong ultrarunner, so I doubted I’d be catching him…  All I could worry about was bull behind me and of achieving my pre-race goal of breaking 4:20.  So for only the second time today I refilled my Camelback water bottle. This time I was more careful dumping my First Endurance E.F.S. into the bottle and topped it off with water.  With 3:20 and change on my watch I was out of the aid station and onto the Natural Well trail heading for the finish!

I’d been keeping up with my calorie intact fairly well up to this point, but knew I needed a little kick so I dug around in my short’s pocket for the GU I’d previously grabbed.  As I fumbled around, I had to slow up a bit.  As I did so I risked a look back and was shocked to see (well, not really J ) that the Brahma bull was in sight and charging my way!  I finally found the gel and forced down the gross Strawberry & Banana flavored GU (faintly remembering that I’ve had bad acid reflux issues while consuming bananas while running) and kept on running.

I still had a minute’s gap, or so, on the Brahma bull as I began the dangerous descent into McKay Hollow known by the locals as “Suicide Drop”.  This trail, even in the best of conditions, read: dry, is a steep, rocky, rooty, narrow strip of trail where a miss step could potentially throw you into the rocks ahead of you (if you’re lucky) or off the side into oblivion (if you’re not so lucky).  Unfortunately I was feeling the irresistible urge to relieve myself just as I began the descent; hardly a good time when you’ve got a raging bull at your heels!  As quick I could I stopped and relieved myself, all the time looking back up the trail for the beast!  My business done I turned to continue my descent but not before I caught a glimpse of the bull!  No time to think about it, I charged down the trail at a somewhat reckless, though comfortable pace.  This was the last downhill on the course so I tried to make it count.  Surprisingly it really wasn’t that slick on the rocks, what snow there was provided pretty good traction, plus my Inov-8 X-Talon 212s provided superior traction everywhere else (best trail shoe I’ve ever worn in my 20 years of running).  (*Ok, full disclaimer, I do get a pro-deal on Inov-8s but that’s only recently, I’ve been a Inov-8 user for several years now.*)

Alas even all good down hills must come to an end and soon Suicide Drop was behind me.   I crossed McKay Creek and headed up stream, up out of McKay Hollow on the remaining section of Natural Well trail.  I didn’t dare look behind me, but I didn’t have to; I could hear the bull grunting, and making noises behind me; he was close!  I pushed up the slick incline to the intersection with McKay Hollow Trail as best I could.  I was now on a fairly runnable part of the course and decided to take advantage of it. Despite being called “Slush Mile” this section is not quite a mile and today, thankfully, it was not slushy.  Normally this section is a muddy mess, but with the sub freezing temperatures, the ground was still fairly solid though things had begun to thaw out a bit in the late morning sun.  As I sped on, I looked across the hollow towards where I’d just come from and sure enough the Brahma bull was, less than a minute back and moving quite well!  I resisted the urge to really take off as I knew I had one last bear of a climb ahead, the infamous “Rest Shelter Hill”. 

The relatively flat “Slush Mile” was soon over and the trail turned to the left and UP!  I half heartily shuffled up the lower, steeper section of Rest Shelter Hill.  After the first steep switch-back I began to walk a bit.  Mistake.  The Brahma bull was closely quickly, just a switch back behind me now!  I tried to remain calm and just looked up ahead and focused on getting to “Kathy’s Bench.”  Some of us call the bench that is about a 1/3 of the way up Rest Shelter Hill “Kathy’s Bench” because it is my better half’s rule that whenever she’s coming up the hill that it’s okay to walk until the bench, but after that you MUST RUN the rest of the way up!  I’d conquered this evil hill again and again during training, but this was race day and I already had 29 miles in my legs!  Didn’t matter, I knew what I had to do. My only shot of holding off the Brahma bull was to be able to run from Kathy’s Bench to the top of Rest Shelter Hill!

After the 3rd switch back the trail is a bit less steep, but no less rough and washed out.  I did attempt to shuffle and soon I arrived at Kathy’s Bench, marking the 4th switch back.  I could still hear the grunts and groans from the bull behind but I tried to put that out of my head as I began to run from the bench and up the trail.  I kept running and kept climbing, surprisingly I didn’t feel too bad; the relentless training perhaps was paying off!   With every uphill step, the grunts and groans of the Brahma bull grew less and less and soon I couldn’t hear the beast; still, I dare not look back!  After what seemed like forever I could finally see the Shelter at the top of the trail.  I was close to the end now.  I passed right on through the last aid station (29.49 miles) at 4:01 and change (on my watch) without even stopping.  I only had 1.6 miles left to go and the remaining distance was mostly flat, easy double and single track trail.

I began to run as hard as I could from the last aid station, it was tough!  My legs were a bit tight, but soon I was back up to a speed somewhat resembling a run.  I hoped what leg speed I had left would be enough to hold off the bull.  As I approached “The Horse Shoe” section of the South Plateau Trail (where the trail does an oxbow bending away and back against itself) I was shocked to see somebody running just across the bend from me!  It’s Hal!  No way!  I was also quite mad as I felt already beaten up enough and now I had to try and catch him! 

I dug deep and accelerated somewhat, but I was rapidly running out of race!  Once on the other side of The Horse Shoe, I risked a look back along the course and thankfully I couldn’t see that Brahma bull!  I now turned my attention to the runner ahead, out of site at the moment.  I continued to run and run.  I passed by the old 30 mile marker and knew I only had less than a mile to go (the finish line is closer than it used to be) so if I was going to make the pass I’d better do it soon!  Now I’m crossing over the bridges on the trail which indicate I’m getting closer and closer to the end of the trail.  Where is he?  Around another bend in the trail and there he is, but it’s not Hal, it’s young Josh Wheeler.  We’re maybe half a mile from the finish now!  I can actually see the Monte Sano Lodge and finish line at this point just across the bluff.  I really pour it on now and make the pass just before we split off the South Plateau Trail onto the connector trail to the North Plateau Trail and finish.  He doesn’t even put up a fight when I run by but instead tell me good job, I try to encourage him on as well saying that we’re almost done now.  I make the final turn onto the North Plateau Trail and down and up one last dip in the trail and then there is the Lodge and finish line right ahead!  I’ll admit I got a bit emotional as I sped the remaining distance to the finish; probably even whooped out loud in excitement! 
Amid the cheers from my friends at the finish, I crossed the line for the 13th time, arms out stretched over my head, in 4:13:57 (8:10 min/mile).  The last section (6.06 miles) took me 54:38 (9:00 min/mile) and I was spent!  I sat down on the low rock wall just past the finish line to catch my breath.  Josh finished just 29 seconds later.

But what of the Brahma bull?  A scant two and a half minutes after I finished, the Brahma bull, hard charging as ever, grunting and groaning flew across the finish line! Whew that was close! 

But what of the loose group I’d been running with the first half of the race?  Twelve minutes later, the next finisher emerged; it was anybody’s guess who it could be.  It was Eric, but David was hot on his heels along with Tim and wait there’s Carl Laniak? And what? Erik Debolt and James Falcon? Where did they come from? All finished within a minute and a half! Wow!  My good buddy Blake finished just seven minutes later, a huge improvement on his best time at Mountain Mist.

But what of my better half?  Not even 28 minutes later, Kathy raced across the finish line in 4:56:58 to win the women’s race!  This was her 4th victory among her 13 finishes!


I’m extremely pleased with my performance this year.  To me this was my finest Mountain Mist race ever; not technically a personal best, nor my highest placing, but still a much more satisfying race than any of my past (yes, even the two Doubles I’ve done don’t compare).  It is a wonderful feeling when all of your hard work pays off, you have perfect race day conditions and everything just “clicks” during the race execution, physically and mentally.  So what’s next?  My solid performance this year has restored my confidence in my ability to race this course fast.  I honestly feel that I am capable of posting even faster times at Mountain Mist given proper training (which I know how to do), satisfactory race day conditions (a crap shoot), and proper race execution (less of a crap shoot).  My real Achilles heel is mustering up the proper motivation; I’ve simply got to want to endure the rigors I know that are required for success at this (or any) race.  I’ll find the motivation, if nothing else some motivation might be the fact that I’ve earned two bronzes and two silvers at Mountain Mist and it sure would be nice to earn some gold before I get too old and slow!

*How the course had changed since 1998 (when it was measured with a wheel to high accuracy):

Alright, if you’re still reading at this point and really want to learn how the course has changed significantly then read on (don’t say I didn’t warn you, i.e. this is a bit of a rant!)  Okay, if you’re still reading you might want to whip out your trusty Monte Sano / Land Trust trail map to be able to follow along a good resource is:
This map at least shows how some of the trails USED to be to illustrate some of my points.  Another good map is at:
This map is a bit more up to date (including the completed Family Bike Trail).

Okay, now to the significant changes to the Mountain Mist 50km course that I can think of since I first ran it in 1998 (in order of mileage point on the course):

1.    The first significant course change since 2002 came in 2005, about a year after the Monte Sano Lodge was rebuilt.  Before 2005 the race started and finished at the main pavilion in the picnic area.  Since 2005, the race has started in front of the Lodge and finished behind it making the starting line a bit shorter to the initial trail head and shorter to the finish from the last aid station.  To compensate for this change, at the start runners run out the gravel road towards the picnic area parking lot before turning back on the park road and head for the initial trail head.  This compensation alone, I believe, covers the change in venue for the start and finish.  Okay so no net gain yet.

2.    The next significant course change occurs at the end of the Mountain Mist trail.  In 2002, after the second switch back up the final climb on the trail, the trail turned straight up and achieved the South Plateau Trail very rapidly.  Today the trail has been re-routed to follow a more gradual route out towards O’Shaughnessy Point before it arrives at South Plateau Trail, this change alone probably added almost 2/10 of a mile.  You can see on the map that the end of the Mountain Mist trail cuts up to the South Plateau Trail quite a distance from O’Shaughnessy Point.  Anybody who’s been out there lately knows that the Mountain Mist Trail goes almost all the way to O’Shaughnessy Point.

3.    Okay, now we’re getting really warmed up!  Next significant change is the route from the end of the Mountain Mist trail to the 1st aid station at O’Shaughnessy Point.  The route in 2002 had us follow the South Plateau Trail (CCW) to the intersection of the Bog Trail, Bog Trail to Fire Tower Trail, then South Plateau Trail (CCW) all the way to the aid station.  Today the first part is the same but instead of running on Bog Trail we immediately take a hard u-turn onto Family Bike Trail and follow this trail to the Fire Tower Trail, right on FTT then left back onto FBT out to the aid station.  This change was put in place largely because of the fact that the West side of South Plateau Trail that runners run on the way to aid station #1 is also the same section runners run the opposite direction from the last aid station to the finish.  So there was a hassle of having to re-mark that section of trail after the runners past through the first time.  Now anybody who’s run on the FBT knows how swooping, back and forth, that trail is, it’s never direct. The old route was much more direct so I’d argue that the new route is probably longer though I’ll admit probably by not a whole lot, but still, definitely longer.

4.    This next course change I may not count as a significant difference between 2002 and 2011 until I get some more clarification because this change may have come before 2002.  Okay from O’Shaughnessy Point through most of the Goat Trail I believe the course is largely the same.  Sure the exact route through the Power Lines has changed from time to time but over all that’s a wash.  The biggest difference is the change in the location of aid station #2.  The old route had us on the Goat Trail until perhaps a ¼ mile from the Three Benches when we took a sharp right off of Goat trail onto a connector trail to Keith Trail.  At the intersection of the connector trail and Keith Trail was the site of aid station #2.  It was decided that it was too difficult to get the aid station back in there as it all had to be hiked in, thus the aid station location was changed to Three Benches.  Well that single change right there added A LOT of distance.  Just look at the map.  That connector trail cuts off quite a bit! 

5.    Next change comes at the end of Keith Trail where, really, the trail just changes names to Logan Point Trail.  Anyways, in the past at the “intersection” you continued straight ahead and the trail cut very straight and steeply downhill on a well washed out section of trail, the trail followed a natural fall line so it was pretty beaten up from erosion.  Several years ago the local mountain bike club (SORBA Huntsville) rerouted Logan Point Trail off the fall line to follow a more gentle, switch backing descent to the East that eventually reconnects to the old route.  This bypass made the trail significantly longer, perhaps by at least 1/10 of a mile (though I’d bet it’s more).

6.    Okay, to be honest, not ALL the course changes have made the route longer, in fact there is one I can think of that has shortened the course.  This change involves the location of aid station #5 at Monte Sano Blvd.  The South Monte Sano Trailhead and parking lot is a very new addition, perhaps only in the last few years.  The old aid station was across the street from where it is now right where runners come out of the woods on the West side of Monte Sano Blvd, from there runners proceeded down Monte Sano Blvd and entered the woods at the gate marking the end of the Natural Well Trail.  Today the aid station is in the parking lot across the street and runners drop down on a connector trail (Trough Springs Trail?) onto Natural Well Trail and continue.  Tough to be sure, but I’d say the new route is a touch shorter than the old route, but perhaps not more than 1/10 of a mile.

So, as you can see, there have been some significant changes to the Mountain Mist 50km course since 2002; I’d say enough to add perhaps 3/10 – 6/10 of a mile on the course (depending on when #4 occurred).
So what is the solution? What am I trying to say?  Well, first off I don’t really care if the current course is longer than in the past as long as the current course length is closer to 50km.  However, this course was wheeled in the past and largely agreed upon that the 1998 course was accurate, not certified but definitely pretty darn close i.e. within 1/10 of a mile or less.  So these changes have obviously then made the course longer than 50km.  The solution then is simple, first let’s actually quantify the actual length of the course and if it’s long, shorten it. 

Possible ways to shorten the course:

1.    The easiest change would be to cut out running to the picnic area parking lot and back on the park road like we do now.  Just start the course straight out to the park road and take a right! I think that simple change would restore the balance quite effectively.  The downside is that the road section is needed to help spread the field before the inevitable bottleneck once runners reach the trailhead.  However, there is quite a log jam at the trail head already and I doubt cutting out that section of road would really make it any worse.

2.    Ways to shorten the course aren’t quite so easy because the ways the course has changed involve physical changes to the trails we run.  About the only place possible to effect any course shortening, without changing the character of Mountain Mist, would be to shorten the route from the end of Mountain Mist Trail to the first aid station (this assumes that option #1 is not exercised).  I bet we don’t need to run all the way to Bog Trail, we could run to the start of the Gravel Road and take a left on the end of the Fire Tower trail and pick up the existing route from there, or use the other side of FBT from there (which snakes around a bit more and is longer) to get to O’Shaughnessy.  This change would shorten the course and still avoid running on the West side of the South Plateau Trail (to avoid the issue of having to re-mark that part of the course).