With LLTH moved back a week from Valentines, there would be 5 weeks to Land Between the Lakes (LBL) -- usually my next race. So to fill the gap, I decided to try the Mt. Cheaha 50k down in Alabama to see what some have said is a more challenging race than the Mountain Mist 50k in Huntsville (the Mountain Mist website claims their race is the toughest run in Alabama). I also wanted to get away from all the snow & mud on the local trails which made training difficult. Which reminds me, I met Kim, the Trail Goddess, on one of those "less than ideal" trail condition days (nice weather though) last week. It was a real surprise, shocking actually, to see a runner from out of state on the snowy hills in Louisville and that runner to be someone I knew too! It made for a pleasant run -- Thanks Kim!
It was a very long drive to Oxford, AL -- like the 400+ mile trip to the Youngstown Ultra Trail Classic 50k last year, but the Friday afternoon traffic thru Tenn. & Ala. was not as bad as when I went up thru Ohio.
Arriving Friday afternoon, I did some sightseeing around Cheaha State Park, the location of the finish line & early packet pickup. I also drove around the park checking out where I had made a 2.5 mile wrong turn in the dark in last year's Pinhoti 100, which also ran thru this park. The park roads looked completely different in the daylight hours! Still, it took me a while to figure out where & how I actually made the mistake. Someone local would have never taken the wrong road as I did -- that wrong turn helped earn me a DNF in that race last year.
on top -- course comes up this road, not far from the finish:
Race day begins with an early bus ride from the finish line to the start area for this point to point race. Apparently, the RD miscalculated the number of runners taking the 2 buses this year. I'm sure glad I got one of the seats, although it was in the back of the bus. Felt sorry for all the people who sat in the aisles -- I would have gotten motion sickness for sure!
Arriving at the start 40 minutes early, there wasn't much to do except to sign in & try to keep warm. Although it was in the upper 20's at the start, I would be running with a singlet, sleeves & shorts. I placed myself about mid-pack as the race started right on time. With 160 runners toeing the line at the trailhead though, the inevitable bottleneck would come very quickly in this race as the single track trail started in less than 100 feet!!
Mt. Cheaha: current skycam
The first few miles were pretty easy going as the pace was dictated by where I had placed myself at the start. I was so glad to be away from all the mud & snow back in KY -- the only slippage here was on thick mats of pine needles! At about mile 7 or 8, the trail emptied out onto a washed out jeep road. At first it was uphill, but then led to a mile or 2 of steady, straight & very runnable downhill. This is where alot of runners kicked it into gear (I put it into neutral). I looked down at my GPS & it said I was running 9 minute miles, if so, everyone else was doing 8 minutes & less! Comparing this course to LLTH, the hills are higher & much longer both up & down, but not as steep or as frequent. One exception to that is the very steep climb up Mt. Cheaha near the end of the race.not sure where I got this (last year's run), but thanks to the original poster:
After the jeep road, the trail went up onto a ridge & stayed there for a long way. Some very nice scenic overlooks when 1st coming up on this ridge. About this time, nature came a calling -- after many years of racing, I've still not found a sure fire diet that will keep this from happening 100% of the time. Weakened with this & along with my changed intake at the aid stations, I just couldn't seem to get any pep into my stride afterwards. With no drop bags in this race, I would be relying on the aid stations for all my intake after the start. Heed would be the drink the rest of the race & having trained on sweet Gatorade, it was a big difference. For the 1st time though, I didn't have abdominal discomfort after drinking Heed as has happened twice before.
one of the nice campsites:
After the scenic overlooks, the trail was following and running just the below the very top of the ridge and it became pretty rough going. Here it was not the embedded rocks as much as the flat rocks that were lying on top of uneven ones that made it tough. Every step was an adventure for several miles as the rocks teetered in unpredictable directions beneath the feet. If I fell here, there were no soft spots so I took my time as I didn't want to get injured. I was very lucky & never once turned an ankle or even rolled one slightly, yet my ankles were extremely sore by the time we finished this section. Many trips, but no falls this day!
Finally leaving the extra rocky section, the course became pretty familiar to me. It was the Pinhoti 100 course run in reverse direction, which I had done twice before. Alot of that was in the dark, so it was nice to see everything I missed. The cold creek crossings hadn't changed, but I could also see what I could only hear before -- the beautiful mountain creek rushing thru the gorge -- nice!
All good things come to an end though as the trail emptied out onto a gravel, then paved road for 2 or 3 miles. My ankles were sore & my feet were hurting as they pounded the hard road. It was easier to shuffle than to run or walk so that's what I did. Most of the runners I had passed on the trail the last 3 or 4 miles passed me back. What I'll remember most though as I trudged along was the sight of Mt. Cheaha looming ahead. On the steepest part of the mountain I could see a near vertical rock face -- that's where the course went!
from Mt. Cheaha -- course approaches from the ridgeline to the distant left in this pic:From the last aid station at Lake Cheaha, the course went UP. Gradual at first, then became steeper & rockier until it was almost a hand climb & the rocks became boulders. I was familiar with the trail having come down this mountain twice, but it sure was a night & day difference in comparison to going up this trail. So I motored up this mountain step by measured step, just watching the heart rate as my legs felt OK with the steep climb. I passed a couple runners who seemed to be having extreme difficulty thru here & I also passed directly underneath 2 people rapelling down the rock face!
At the top of this extra steep section, the course became a mix of paved road & trail. I just wanted to finish evenly from here & not get passed by too many runners on the road sections (2 actually passed). Official finish time 7:20:23.
Jamie & Todd Henderson (in the pink & in the red), Race Directors at the finish at the Bald Rock Lodge:
Land Between the Lakes 50M. Last year was one of my better efforts, so matching that will be my goal.