Last Saturday, the 23rd of March, was the seventh running of the McKay Hollow Madness (MHM) Trail Run which began in 2007. The event was the brainchild of Tom Possert, a renowned ultramarathoner and adventure racer who lives locally in the Huntsville area. Tom designed the McKay Hollow Madness as a trail half marathon race that incorporated some of the most difficult trails in the Monte Sano State Park trail system; including a brutal last uphill on the infamous “Death Trail” (northern leg of the McKay Hollow Trail).
For the first two years, Tom race directed MHM and the course was significantly different than today’s longer ~25km route. For starters the course started and finished by the ranger station pavilion. The first two miles were screaming fast as runners ran out the park and gravel road to O’Shaughnessy point. At O’Shaughnessy point the route dropped down the first part of Mountain Mist and continued on the relatively new Goat Trail extension over to Warpath Ridge then up the familiar climb to the first aid station back at O’Shaughnessy point. From there the course was largely the same, down Shelter Hill (southern leg of the McKay Hollow Trail), Slush Mile (middle section of McKay Hollow Trail), around Arrowhead Trail, climb up Natural Well trail. However at this time the newer section of Arrowhead trail that runs to the Trough Springs trailhead was not yet in existence so runners had to run a long out and back leg on Natural Well trail to an aid station near Monte Sano Blvd and back before dropping down Arrowhead trail. Back then, believe it or not, Neo Son-of-a-Bitch Ditch (the huge washout that we run around now, also the original S.O.B. ditch is a feature on the Barkley Marathons course) was hardly the chaotic mess it is now! The remaining route of the original MHM course was almost the same as it is now except that once runners topped out above the waterfall on Death Trail they were not done yet but had to run counter-clockwise around on the North and South Plateau Trail and cabin road to finish back at the ranger station pavilion.
My first experience with the MHM was in 2008, the second edition where I was fortunate enough to win the half marathon trail race in a “course record” time of 1:45:57. After that year, Tom wasn’t going to be able to put on the race the following year because he was going to be out of the country for several weeks. In stepped Blake Thompson, my wife Kathy and myself to fill the void. So starting in 2009 I spent the next several years not running MHM but instead helping co-race direct (silently and behind the scenes with Kathy) and volunteer heavily for MHM, from logo design, course design, course marking, working the finish line, post race clean up etc… It’s a big job and big stress putting an event on like this and Blake should be well thanked for all his work the past five years!
So our first year, 2009, was very exciting. This was the first time any of us had put on an event and we had a lot of growing pains; lot’s of mistakes made but we learned quite a deal! We also had a lot of fun thinking of ways to make the event our own; to put our signature on the already established event. So I masterminded a partial course redesign to make it more difficult. Gone was the fast flat start; replaced with the drop down North Sinks Trail and the technical climb up through Super Cuts and Logan Ridge then down Stone Cut Trail, up South Sinks and a rocky, steady ascent up Mountain Mist Trail. I also eliminated the long out and back on the Natural Well trail; instead runners ascend Natural Well like they do now but then took the left, downhill, onto Arrowhead. So since we eliminated the Monte Sano Blvd. aid station we instead lugged 20 gallons of water down to the four way Arrowhead-Natural Well crossing in McKay Hollow. This intersection seemed like a great place to cache some aid since runners come and go through this trail crossing twice. Another change we made was to finish the race right at the top of Death Trail. I thought it would be awesome (in good weather) for spectators and finishers a like to be able to hang out right at the finish and watch runners ascend one last steep section of trail and cross one last slippery stream.
Building off our success in 2009, the 2010 course was largely left unchanged except that, after the horror of lugging 20 gallons of water down into McKay Hollow, we decided to bring back the out and back section on Natural Well trail and set up the aid station on the far side of the now much larger Neo S.O.B. Ditch. We forced runners to have to cross the wicked ditch twice! However as the entire “road” out to the Ditch was very sketchy we decided that we really needed to have the aid station at the Trough Springs Trailhead. By 2011 the Arrowhead extension trail had been completed and so we had a way to loop the course to and from the trail head without an out and back. This new edition would make the course significantly longer as we were loath to change the course anywhere else to shorten it. Therefore we re-branded the MHM as a “~25km” trail run and no longer a ½ marathon. In my mind it will always be the McKay Hollow Madness Trail Run with no distance label attached as the primary goal has always been to come up with a fun route that flowed well without worrying about the exact distance or exact route. But since the new GPSd route seemed close to 25km we decided to at least advertise what we thought the distance was (not that this was a PR 25km trail course by any means and not that it was certified at all). Unfortunately, as everybody knows, 2011 Mother Nature won as the event had to be canceled due to extremely heavy lightning storms in the area. But a lot of runners still took advantage of the marked route and got out there and at least ran some of the course on their own. So the first official running of the “new” course came the following year in 2012.
Now to the present. 2013. Through some twist of fate and much to my delight I had the opportunity to run the MHM this year. In years past I was not only too busy helping with the event but I’d also been regularly participating in the Barkley Marathons which fell too close to the MHM date. Unfortunately for me I had a stomach bug over the weekend prior to the race that really knocked me out for almost five days! What made matters worse was that my first couple of runs back were not at all encouraging as my legs threatened to cramp on the steep downhills because of an apparent electrolyte imbalance. But over the remaining day or two before the race I really pounded various electrolyte compounds and started to feel more like myself. Still, it was anybody’s guess how I’d be able to race at MHM that Saturday.
|Calm in the morning storm: Me, Jimm Giles and my wife Kathy.|
Race morning it was extremely grey and misty as a cold, light rain continued to fall. Walking over from the house with my wife Kathy we noted most of the racers will still jammed inside the tarped up pavilion trying to eke out some last minute warmth from two roaring fire places. Finally the herd made its miserable way out to the main park road to the starting line. Thankfully the start line briefing was short and we were on our way.
|And we're off!|
I started out very conservative not exactly knowing what to expect once we hit the trail after the first easy road mile to thin out the race field. At the first pool of standing water at the end of the cabin road I saw runners ahead of me trying to tip toe around it. Not me, I charged straight on through like I do everywhere else on the course. Definitely a pet peeve of mine; just stay in the center of the trail people! Skirting the edge of the mud or puddles widens and damages the trail even more! It makes absolutely no sense to try and avoid the slop and it actually wastes a considerable amount of time as well. Just get stick to the center of the trail, get your feet wet and roll with it; this is trail running! Ok, off my soap box. The road mile ended pretty abruptly and I dropped down the North Sinks Trail. As expected it was a slick mess made worse by a blowdown that had blocked a steep switch back thus forcing runners to plummet straight down a slippery fall line to the trail below. I actually kept traction pretty well on this slippery slide but heard that many others were not so lucky! Off the downhill I felt pretty good, no leg twitches or threats of cramping thus far. Special thanks to Tony Alexander who’s massage a couple days before the race really helped a great deal to work out my cramping legs!
By Logan Point trail I’d settled into a comfortable pace. Not race fast but not lollygagging either; sort of a trail tempo pace that I hoped to sustain throughout the event.
|Splashing through Logan Point Trail.|
On the climb through the Super Cuts I passed at least a couple runners who made a wrong turn (easy to do) and by the time I topped out on Logan Point on the ridge I was by myself; in a void that I’d be for almost the entire rest of the race. As I descended Stone Cut Trail I thought I spotted a runner in all black some distance ahead so figured I was somewhere in the top five perhaps? No idea. But I wasn’t concerned at all about place only trying to keep my pace nice and steady and avoiding redlining.
Felt pretty good climbing out of the Sinks and making the sharp turn onto the Mountain Mist trail; noticed that the turn was not well marked. The red flagging was very difficult to see in the dark mist and the connector trails were not marked off. Thankfully I knew the route well for obvious reasons but I fear the black clothed runner must have missed this turn because I never saw him yet finished ahead of him! Sorry guy! The long grade up Mountain Mist Trail was uneventful; I felt more like I was in a solo training run than a race as I was all by myself and the cold mist made things very quiet. All I could hear was my own footsteps and my steady breathing. The short drop down Goat Trail was a lot fun as I did my characteristic “alley-oop” turns at each switch-back (at the switch back I spin my body the opposite way of the switch back as I make the turn) even though there was nobody around to witness my clowning around. The climb up Warpath was a muddy grind but I just focused on finding the line with the shallowest steps; the least wasteful line. At the top I ran right through the aid station at O’Shaughnessy Point and kept on going to the turn off down Shelter Hill.
This was the descent I was most worried about after my leg cramping episode a few days prior. Thankfully the electrolyte regime and deep tissue massage had worked their magic and I had no issues; just floated down the rocky mountain side. Slush mile was just that; a muddy quagmire than had to be endured. I was saddened to see so many new splinter trails off either side of the main trail from folks trying to avoid the muddy mess. Shameful in my opinion. Ok, off the soap box again, sorry, just bugs me! Near the end of slush mile I passed by several early starters and then, unbelievably I spotted Brandon Madder ahead of me! Big shock as Madder was heavily favored to win based on his last year’s winning performance and experience as a national class XTerra trail racer and all around leg speed. However I knew he’d been overcoming an injury and hadn’t even been running on trails for months. When I caught up to him on Arrowhead Trail we ran together and talked all the way up the very steep and technical Natural Well Trail. As the trail leveled out near the towering rock bluff I sped back up as I made my way to the second aid station at just over 10 miles. Again I didn’t even stop at the aid station as my water bottle with 1st Endurance E.F.S. was still half full; plenty to get me to the finish in these cold and wet conditions. I did take a gel right before the aid station but other than that I had no other nutrition during the race. I really felt the honey on toast I had before the race would suffice and it did.
I knew the next couple of miles were the best try and run fast as they were mostly level to steeply downhill on the Natural Well and Arrowhead Trails so I made the best of it. I had just learned from Mader that I was now in second place and aimed to maintain that! However, I also knew I had no chance of catching Eric Charette, the race leader, when John Nevels, who I saw checking the course markings after S.O.B. ditch, told me I was 3-4 minutes behind! Oh well! I felt pretty darn good and wanted to keep feeling that way so I just cruised along and enjoyed the sounds of my feet splashing through the endless ankle deep puddles and squishing through the equally thick mud. I felt like I was just floating down the upper part of Arrowhead Trail; that downhill is mesmerizing and fun! However, all good things come to an end; the trail bottomed out before climbing through the ancient cistern and the quick down and up loop around the Big Cat extension trail (I seriously hope nobody cheated and cut this loop off as it’s easy to do!). The remaining mile on the Neo-Slush Mile (Arrowhead trail from top of Big Cat to Natural Well Trail intersection) was a boggy, muddy hell; impossible to maintain a steady running pace. But finally I’d passed the three large blow downs and the hand hewn cedar bridge and arrived at the last significant downhill on the course.
Down Natural Well trail I didn’t push with reckless abandon like I love to do on occasion; instead deciding to take it easy and risk injury and save my energy in case I had to thwart any last minute threat to my second place position. Crossing the icy cold McKay Creek at the bottom I had my closest call to actually falling all day; thankfully I only put one hand down and as per Saturday Football rules that couldn’t be ruled an actual fall. (We like to play this game where we go by Football rules to decide if what you did was considered a true “fall” or not. On Saturdays we go by NCAA rules so if you have a knee or elbow down on the ground; it’s a fall. However, on Sundays we go by NFL rules so no matter how you end on the ground or what touches it’s only a “fall” if you’re down by contact or touched by another runner while you’re down. Suffice to say when you run on Sundays alone you can never fall!)
I didn’t cry much going up Cry Baby Hill but I did glance behind me from time to time to make sure the Old Man (a.k.a. Dink Taylor) wasn’t trying to sneak up on me. I didn’t realize at the time that he’d taken a nasty fall earlier that broke a rib and possibly fractured his hand! Yikes! But the fear of being caught this late into the game was still very real so I kept climbing smartly but certainly not trying to red line. I topped out on Cry Baby Hill and passed some runners still coming out bound on the only section of MHM where the course double backs on itself for perhaps a little more than a tenth of a mile. More power to these folks having to endure the cold and wet for so long! Kudos to you guys and gals!
Finally began the final ascent of the course, up the dreaded Death Trail. But this day at least I didn’t dread it but instead really enjoyed my fast hike up and out of McKay Hollow; I wasn’t being pushed and there was no way I was going to catch Eric so why rush? Somehow, despite the thick fog, a crowd above the waterfall at the top of the climb spotted me and began to yell and cheer. I decided I needed to run again and so managed to run the rest of the way up and out of the gorge and jogged the final couple hundred meters to the race finish back at the large picnic area pavilion.
My final time was 2:11:38; good enough for second place overall. Not a bad performance considering my pitiful and shameful Ultra Signup ranking had me pegged for a 2 hour and 30 minute finish and not even a top ten finish!
While the McKay Hollow Madness Trail Run was certainly not a goal race for me, I had neither the specificity training nor the fitness; it was wonderful to feel healthy after being so sick! I really enjoyed getting out there and running in the slop and loved experiencing what all the hype was about! This is definitely, mile for mile one of the toughest trail races in the Southeast that will beat you up if you’re not careful. However, at the same time the low key, small, grass roots nature of the event make it a true gem unlike any other. I probably won’t be able to run the MHM for a while, at least not next year as I’m planning on returning to the Barkley Marathons, but I can promise that I'll be there helping to put the race on and cheering for each and every banged up, bruised and muddy finisher!
|Stylish working the finish line.|
Special thanks to Greg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville and James Hurley for the shared photographs.