It seems like only yesterday when we would line up at the starting line, maybe 40-50 of us, and take off into the woods of Signal Mountain, only to be spit back out hours later onto a soccer field occupied by kids in the midst of a full-fledged game, with their parents cheering for us (we thought, but really for their kids) as we circled around the perimeter back to the parking lot to which we started, greeted by a few folks and a slice of pizza.
And now, the Rock/Creek Stumpjump 50k has become the premier ultra event of the southeast, with hundreds at the starting line, a helicopter escort from the Signal Mountain High School parking lot into the woods, and commemorative medals to finishers, not to mention the Food Network-style food truck serving up killer burgers and fries! What a race day experience! Thanks goes first and foremost to Rock/Creek, Wild Trails, all the sponsors, and ultrarunning’s first couple, Randy and Kris Whorton for all of their hard work and dedication to make this race experience one of the best in the country.
Coming through the summer months of grueling hot-weather running, I knew that I really wanted to make this year’s experience at Stumpjump one to remember. I trained really hard, running tempo runs and track workouts to the point of asphyxiation, and then pushing further. I cut down on “junk runs”, saving my mileage for runs that would help me achieve my goal, which was to run my guts out. That’s all I wanted to do. Run myself into the ground, and then keep going.
This was my 7th year to run Stumpjump (I think), and while I had posted a good time on the course before, I really wanted to show this grinder of a race that I could do it on its new course as well. The knowledge of the course played well for me. I knew right where the aid stations were, the distance and terrain between them, and I knew that the race doesn’t really start until you see Suck Creek road for the second time. I knew that it was all about the last 10k, which included the climb up to Mushroom Rock, and the seemingly all uphill 4-mile finish to the high school.
I had my game plan ready, and if I stuck with it, keeping myself fueled and hydrated along the way, I knew that whatever the result, it was going to be my best effort.
So 8 am came quickly, and the field was off… really, really fast. No doubt the amazing weather contributed to the quick pace, but it was secured by the fact that the front-runners included David Riddle (if you don’t know who he is, just look at the results of the race and go from there). As we traveled on the trails around the High School and towards the actual race beginning at Mushroom Rock, the field gradually began to separate, with the fast pace splitting everyone up. Jay Curwen remarked that the pace at the front must be around or below 6 minute miles, as we were cruising along at around 7s… “We are on pace for a 4:01,” he said, but none of us seemed to flinch. At least not yet.
I ran behind Jay and we steamed down Mushroom Rock, up the next climb, and back down towards the creek and the road crossing, which meant aid station #1… but none of us stopped, we just kept cruising. The pace began to steady as we made our way towards the bluff and followed it around to Indian Rock. After the volunteers topped off my insulated handheld with Heed, I slammed a cup of Coke and was off again, this time playing catch up for a bit until I could get the heels of a few other runners.
One of them was from Seattle, and remarked that this was his first experience racing on the East coast. We conversed for a good amount of time, passing through the Mullens Cove Loop at a very steady pace. We made our way through the next aid station, where I grabbed a Hammer gel and some more Heed, and we continued to gain ground, running at a steady pace. At the climb before the mile 17(ish) aid station, I began to press a bit, knowing that the rock garden was soon ahead, and that it would inevitably slow the pace down due to the constant finding of footing.
I left my Seattle buddy out on the climb out of the aid station, and pressed until the rock garden, where I took a wrong turn (because I was looking down too much), but quickly regained my bearings, not losing too much time. I felt fresh, so the misdirection did not weigh on my psyche, as I knew I still had plenty in the tank to burn. I got out of the rock garden unscathed, minus the tree that stabbed me in the leg, but no worries there. I got to the aid station at mile 19, and the volunteers there took my bottle and topped it off, allowing me to slam a cup of Coke and open my tropical-flavor Hammer gel, and off I went, into the last 4ish miles until the real race started.
I cruised through the Indian Rock House aid station, and was happy to hear the voice of Jamie Dial (good to see you brother!) encouraging me to keep it up. I was beginning to settle in at this point, really getting ready for the downhill that leads to Suck Creek and then the grueling 10k finish. I drank all of my fluid so as to be well prepared and not have to impede my breathing with drinking on the monster climbs up to Mushroom rock. Soon enough, I was coming off the bluff and began to lay on the gas, flying downhill and praying that my steps were swift but solid so as to not to stumble. I came down the stairs that lead me to the road, and saw two of my fellow Rock/Creek race team members making their way down the brief section of road towards the guardrail that would lead us to the next aid station.
John Wiygul and Josh Wheeler both left the aid station ahead of me, but I had a game plan, and I was determined to stay with it, again reminding myself that I wanted to do my best… “Strong and Courageous… not by might nor by power,” I said over and over again. I took down two cups of soda as the volunteers re-filled my bottle with Heed. “And now it starts… from here to the finish!” I told myself.
I crossed the bridge and started climbing the gnarly, twisted single track that led up to the sky. I ran as much as it made sense, and power-walked the rest. Soon I had caught one of my fellow race team members and, after some encouragement, pressed on. Down the backside of the first climb, and then up the final climb to Mushroom rock. “Strong and Courageous” were my words, and I began to lift the pace ever so slightly, knowing the top was near. Soon enough the big rock appeared, balancing ever precariously atop its perch, and along with it were the yellow R/C flags that led to the final aid station of the day.
Rock/Creek Race team members Sara Woerner and Sheridan Ames were there, with some final words of encouragement for me as I slammed another cup of soda. Now it was really time to press, to pour it all out. The last 4-ish miles of this race are grueling, as the trail weaves its way around up and down, but inevitably towards the finish. My plan for this last section to the finish was to run every step, no matter what.
Up, down, cramps, whatever… it didn’t matter. I was going to run every step to the finish as hard as I possibly could. I had done this before in my training, so I knew how it would feel, but I also knew what it felt like to push that hard. I knew what it would take for me to get to that point, but I knew what to expect when I was there. So I gritted my teeth, and suffered with every step.
I soon caught up with my fellow R/C team member John Wiygul, and he gave me a good push as I passed him. He is one of those guys that is always encouraging, no matter how he may be feeling, and he didn’t fail to offer me some words that I needed.
Soon I crossed the road with about a mile-and-a-half to go. “Keep it up,” the sentry said, “.8 miles to go!”
Well, luckily I knew the course, so I wasn’t fooled… I knew I had more than that to go. I just continued to grit and grind, forcing myself to run faster. “Strong and Courageous,” I said, over and again. I popped out onto the road for the final time, and knew I had a half-mile to go. I thought briefly of the speed work sessions I had done, and the half-mile repeats on the track that had brought me to the point of suffocation, and then I sped up.
“All the way to the finish… faster than this… all the way… ‘Strong and Courageous’ …you have more …to the finish!”
I hit the turn and saw the finishing banner and poured it out. As my throat began to close up, I crossed the finish, and I knew I had done my best. I had done my absolute best, and it had paid off. I finished in 5th place with a 4:47, but more than that, I knew I had pushed it as hard as I could.
I got my bearings about me, and congratulated the other finishers as they came in. Soon enough, my friend Ryan finished up his day, and then came my wife Bev, who always finishes up with a big smile. The finish line atmosphere was amazing, and the energy was contagious. The faces of the finishers are always priceless, as some are finishing their first-ever ultra, and you can usually tell them by their huge smiles and embraces from family members following their finish.
This is something that has not changed at StumpJump since its inception, and I dare say it never will. The feeling and exhilaration of finishing, and the camaraderie of all of us that get out there and enjoy this sport… that’s what it’s all about. Seeing the finishers, cheering with their families, high-fiving, sharing the stories of the day, catching up with old-friends, and running the best course the south has to offer.
Thanks a ton to all the aid station volunteers who helped us out there, as well as those who work tirelessly behind the scenes with the timing, course marking, etc. that make the race great. Thanks to Rock/Creek for the opportunity to be a part of something much bigger than myself, and again to all the sponsors for the help in growing the event and the sport. Now it’s time to get some rest and heal up… the is right around the corner!