Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Upchuck 50km: A Return To The Woods!

Photo: Reuben Watkins

After a long late Summer into early Fall of road racing and training I was so happy to get back out on the trails. I think I've signed up to do the Upchuck 50km the past three years only to not be able to go for various reasons. So finally I got to go! 

The race itself was extremely rugged, remote and difficult point to point 50km trail race outside Soddy Daisy, TN (just north of Chattanooga) that has a cumulative elevation gain of over 5,500'.  The race is small (only 75 participants accepted) and definitely considered a "post-graduate" type 50km as a prior 50km is required. The race is no joke as there are only two official aid stations (8 and 18 miles) so you must be prepared to carry what you need!

Here is some more information about the route from Stava also official Cumberland Trail Three Gorges description and maps, also an interesting comparison of Upchuck vs. Stump Jump 50ks. More of Reuben Watkin's photos.

Anyhow, I finished 5th overall in 5:19:10. Perfect running weather but not perfect trail conditions. Route follows Cumberland Trail for most of the race. The CT is very rocky and technical with rock garden after rock garden. However, the trail builders have done a masterful job of smoothing the trail out as best they could; can't count how many stone steps we traversed or switch backs taken. What made the course even more difficult on this day was that all the leaves from the trees had very recently fallen; hiding all the dangerous rocks, roots and holes in the trail. Very hazardous trail conditions really slowed everybody down including the talented race leaders as nobody broke 5 hours! So I now don't feel so bad for being so slow! Overall felt just okay, on the plus side I had pretty good residual fitness from all the road training I'd been doing for the Army Ten Miler and some marathon training. On the negative side I still felt that deep fatigue and lack of spring in my legs. To top it all off I took a HARD fall onto my left hip (right on a rock) ~10-11 miles in. Took a steep, leaf covered switchback a bit too tight and WHAM I was down. Hurt so bad I had to walk for the next several minutes. This course is seriously difficult but also extremely scenic and beautiful! The typical pattern was a fairly long climb up a drainage, often getting very steep up in places, then a brief break of good running along the top of a plateau before plunging down into the next gorge on very steep, rock stepped trails, rinse and repeat for most of the 31 miles. Would love to come back one day with fresher legs and NO leaves down on the trail and really see what I could do; pretty sure sub-5hr is not out of the question with the right conditions.

Photo: Reuben Watkins

Longer Description:

Adventure started with a short ride on a prison bus to the start at Lower Leggett Rd., complete with the colorful prison inmate character "Ray Jay" making fun of each and every one of us as he checked us off the roll sheet. Funny stuff, but you had to be there to get it. Off the bus we had a quick group shot and then we were off onto the paved all-access trail. Just 100m in I suddenly found myself in second place right behind Ryan M. as about 10-15 folks missed the first turn! Doh! The Upchuck 50km follows the Three Gorges Section of the Cumberland Trail (Rock Creek, Possom Creek, Soddy Creek). So, as one can surmise, there was a big climb and big descent associated with crossing each gorge with some nice running on the Cumberland Plateau in between. Anyhow, as I didn't get a chance to pee before the start I really had to go so just about 2 miles in I pulled off the trail and let the large front running group go on by. Just as well, I hate leading the congo-lines! I got back going again at a more leisurely pace. The trail was extremely leaf covered and you really had to pay attention to the footing AND the trail markers. The only additional marking for the race were some occasional flagging indicating a sharp turn. So I could see that the top five folks had taken off with Ryan M out in the void and then four other guys in a congo line just ahead of me. I caught back up to the congo line and eventually made my way around them (not easy on the narrow trail) and caught up to Ryan and went ahead of him for a while. Just before crossing Rock Creek I ran by a campsite with a woman blowing a vuvuzula, a man with a horse head mask and a standard poodle staring at me. Weird. I crossed the first of many awesome bridges on the route and began the first of several steep climbs up to the Cumberland Plateau. Ryan wasn't very far behind at this point but I just kept setting my own pace; mostly running up the steep trail with occasional walk breaks in the switch backs. Once the trail topped out the route was pretty flat and flowed nicely through some pine woods that had nice pine straw floor. I could really make time in these stretches which became the norm throughout the day. Deep leaf covered sections of trail interspersed with occasional pine forest with awesome footing. Weird again. The faded white CT blazes through this section were a bit more difficult to spot and more than once I had to come to complete stop and look around to find the next blaze; the trail was so covered in leaves it was difficult to tell where the trail went! So, with all the stop and go, Ryan finally caught back up and we arrived at the 8 mile aid station (one of only two official aid stations) and quickly topped off our water bottles.

Photo: Reuben Watkins
Entering the woods once again Ryan and I talked about joining forces for a while to help pass the time and keep the pace up. So we kept on going, trading the pacing duties every so often. Then tragedy struck around 11 miles or so when coming down a steep and tight switchback my legs flew out from under me and WHAM I landed hard on my left hip! The pain was incredible and the breath was knocked out of me. Ryan was concerned but I told him to go on that I needed to walk for a bit. Well I walked for a couple minutes and felt better so began running again; crossed the concrete bridge and re-entered the woods. I quickly caught back up to Ryan and we kept on cruising through the rolling forest. There was obvious evidence of past strip mining in the area as the trail often passed between the hill side proper and the large tailing piles (now tree covered). Barkley has terrain very similar to this. The next big bridge crossing was at Possum Creek. The approach into the gorge was very steep down switch backs and rock steps. Pretty awesome but I really had to take it easy to avoid slipping or rolling my ankles because of the thick leaf covering. The views were spectacular however (when I dared take my eyes off the trail). Across the bridge I was surprised we didn't start climbing steeply right away but instead followed the creek downstream for a ways before we began the steep climb back up to the Cumberland Plateau. Once back on top we really made pretty good time even with the constant rollers; truly felt like the whole race was uphill!
Photo: Reuben Watkins

Finally we arrived at the second and last (official) aid station at mile 18 at just over three hours. Pretty good pace Ryan said. I thought naively that we still had a shot at sub 5 hours! ha! This aid stop was even quicker than the last, just some topped off bottles and we were gone as I was anxious to keep pace with Ryan. The next couple of miles are on pavement and cross and then parallel Highway 111. Boring! On the upside we were just behind the 5th place runner with the 4th place not too far ahead! Wow! As we got back onto the "frontage trail" along Highway 111 we passed the 5th place guy. Finally we hit the steep steps over the fence and were back onto some of the nicest single track I've been on in quite a while. Ryan said we had nine trail miles left. We were really making good time in this next stretch. He warned me that this was the place to run well because the last six miles of the race (four on the trail) were very, very tough. So make good time we did which was why I was shocked when at around mile 23-24 Ryan stepped off the trail to go to the bathroom. He told me to go on, that he'd catch up. I figured that would be highly unlikely! But now in sole possession of 5th place I wasn't going to give it up now! The race was on! So I started to pick up the pace a bit more. What an awesome place to be running fast, pine strawed trail that winded in around and over old strip mine tailings. Wow! Kind of spooky too as it was very overcast and looking like rain was threatening (it didn't rain). I bet there are some ghosts in these woods! Then things got very serious with two steep descents, gorge crossings and climbs within two miles. The first was Big Soddy Creek, more like a river, with a very sketchy traverse on a ramshackle temporary bridge; nothing more than a couple of long felled trees lashed together and a very loose cable "hand rail". Watch your step! The trail was all chewed up at either side as construction of a new, huge, bridge was underway. My energy level really started to plummit at this point. I'd truly outrun my fitness and calories now. I scrambled like mad up the river bank trying to find the trail. I'm sure I took the worst line up but I eventually found the trail; paranoid that Ryan was going to catch me! Back on the trail now it climbed very steeply up hill on some long switchbacks that had some flatter sections as well. I chowed down on some chews and dumped a bunch of sea salt again (one of many times that day) down my throat. I went to drink some water and realized that I was about out! I still had six miles or so to go! The trail topped out, cut across a narrow slice of plateau and dropped once again into yet another gorge, Deep Creek. Getting close to the crossing I heard music as I clambered, drunkenly, down the steep trail. Sure enough there were some back packers there with some music blaring and even better, they had some filtered water to share. I'm not sure if this was an official aid station, some trail angels or what. But I didn't question it. I topped off one bottle and thanked them profusely. I clambered up some sizable boulders to get back on the trail (a new bridge was under construction here as well). The trail out of Deep Creek was very steep and I still tried to shuffle as much as I could as I chomped down on some more chews. I'd only clambered up a few switchbacks when I heard cheering below. Must be Ryan. Damn! The trail finally topped out and I could stride out a bit but the way got slow and rocky again; yet another rock garden! But wow the view was breathtaking as I arrived at a narrow point. Panoramic view of Soddy Daisy and the finish far below! But before I could get there I still had one last rocky stretch of trail (mostly uphill) left to go. At last I could hear a car on a road and knew I was almost off the trail! Yes! I could see the road and just like that I was off the trail and hammering down the road! Can't describe how awesome it felt to be able to lengthen my stride confidently and just hammer it out! While my Garmin Fenix didn't really track too well today in the deep gorges and thick tree canopy it started to work now; first mile downhill was well under seven! Awesome! Civilization at last! So sweet! I didn't even mind the little yapper dog that chased me for a block! One final long straightaway, just moving and feeling pretty good and I was at the last turn into the parking lot and to the finish.

Photo: Reuben Watkins
The finish consisted of either tagging the trash can (or puking in it). They announced my finish time (5:19:10) which I had to then write myself on the finishing poster board. Cool. Phew! That was tough! Ryan must have had some legs on the last road section as well because he finished just 3 minutes later!

So how did my performance stack up against other Upchuck 50km debuts? From best I can tell (from Ultrasignup) here are the Top Ten Upchuck 50km Debut Performances:
1 Michael Plummer 4:47:15 2012
2 Johnny Clemons 4:47:26 2011
3 Cody Goodwin 4:48:52 2012
4 Josh Wheeler 4:53:20 2009
5 Andy Wellman 4:58:59 2012
6 Nick Lewis 5:00:22 2013
7 Brian Pickens 5:08:26 2013
8 Matt Davies 5:13:20 2010
9 Nathan Holland 5:14:20 2012
10 Rob Youngren 5:19:10 2013

 Top ten debut performance? Not too shabby! I'll take it! 

What an awesome event. While I'm not a big fan of50kms anymore I do really like this wicked point-to-point route. I think I will be back sometime. When I can't say but I will return. After all this course is ripe for a Double attempt...