Lookout Mountain 50: Digging Deep

I pushed up Lookout Mountain, my hiking poles sticking into the damp trail. Somewhere up ahead (emphasis on “up”) was the top, and more importantly, the finish line.

I was 51.5 miles into a 50-mile race (!), with, supposedly, just a touch longer to go. But I was still winding my way through dark singletrack, my only clue to the route the occasional reflective flag. The spectators a half-mile behind who’d said “You’re almost there!” were lying, as usual. And then I heard a voice from somewhere, someone who must’ve seen my headlamp.

“Runner! You have FIVE MINUTES! GO! GO! GO!”

Thirteen hours on the mountain, and it all came down to five minutes. Make it, and I’m listed as a finisher. Miss it, and I wouldn’t even make the DNF list, because there isn’t one. I’m either a finisher, or I was never there. Thanks for coming.

****************************************************************

The Lookout Mountain 50 wasn’t on my original list of December ultras. As my birthday fell on a Saturday this year, I first checked that date. When no races really called my name, I looked at options on the 17th. This one checked all the boxes: nice location, reasonable conditions, start time not too early, great views, good reviews. And two extra weeks to train, too.

It promised to be a good challenge. Basically, you run from Covenant College at the top of the mountain to the bottom, then climb right back up, reaching the start/finish again at mile 18(ish). Many runners stop there, while the 50-milers continue onto the “back 31” which appeared to be much more manageable. Check out the elevation profile below.

The only caveat was strict cutoffs at each aid station and the finish line. No problem; cutoff times are for back-of-the-pack, right? As a self-considered “strong” ultrarunner (i.e. front midpacker), I figured once past that first big climb, I was in the clear. I would regret that overconfidence.

I stayed in Chattanooga, about a twenty-minute drive from where the race starts. I arrived Thursday night to give myself a full day to prep for the race and even get in some sightseeing. On Friday, race outfit selected and drop bags packed, I visited Ruby Falls, which is under Lookout Mountain. Leo Lambert found it by accident in 1928 when trying to open another entrance into Lookout Mountain Cave. Instead, he discovered a spectacular underground waterfall that is the largest in the U.S. open to the public. As I’d be on the mountain the next day, it seemed appropriate to give the trip an “under/over” symmetry.

There are lots of photos online of the falls and the eclectic rock formations, so I’ll only post one of mine here, which by no means does justice to the falls. You just have to be there in person and see it up close to truly understand how breathtaking and spiritual it is.

Saturday morning the 18-mile and 50-mile races began promptly at 7:30 a.m., in perfect conditions for a trail run, cool and partly sunny. Due to a last-minute biological need (always!) I started near the back of the queue, which cost me time once we got on the singletrack. I was often held up by less confident runners trying to navigate technical sections, and there was little room to pass. This lasted for about seven miles, until we hit a stretch of fire road, and the pack spread out. After that I was able to go my own pace.

The course features some spectacular rock formations, creeks and waterfalls, and long views.The following few photos are courtesy of fellow runner Jamie Limbaugh, who was kind enough to forward them to me when I told her my phone’s camera had crapped out.

Soon enough came the big climb. It was a tough push, but to my surprise there were very runnable sections, and I reached the top feeling great, even a little cocky. “Just a little ol’ 50K to go!” I called out cheerfully to the timers as I headed out onto the back loop.

Oh, how I’d be eating those words later on.

The first potion of the back loop was smooth and easy, and I began entertaining fantasies of really rocking the race. I’d finished the first 18 in 3:43 – slower than I’d hoped, but still good, and if I managed a six-hour back loop, I could finish in under ten, maybe near my PR.

And then came the rocky parts, and more steep climbs and drops. And a rope section. But most disturbingly, I got the feeling I wasn’t performing well. I was putting in the effort, but not making good time, and other runners were passing me. I set aside the PR thoughts and focused on doing my best. And thought all was well.

Until I hit the aid station at mile 37. “You’ve got plenty of time,” a volunteer told me. “You’re 45 minutes ahead of cutoff.”

Say what? Only forty-five minutes? And it would be dark soon. I needed to step it up. I pushed ahead, going past the aid station at mile 41 without stopping – a fortuitous decision, as it turned out. For at the final aid station at mile 44.5 (ish), I and a few other runners got more bad news.

First, we were only 30 minutes ahead of cutoff. Second, the course had been changed. Instead of a final leg of four miles for 49 miles total, it was now 7.5 miles back for 52 miles total. And the finish line cutoff time (13:38:00) had not changed. We had two hours and eight minutes to cover 7.5 miles, uphill, in the dark.

I told myself I was within my rights to melt down, but of course no one did. Sudden change? We’ve been there before. Suck it up, reset mentally, and get back at it. Seven and half it was.

Dig in and push. Run when you can. Look for the next flag. Reassure other runners we can do this. Watch them pass me. Repeat for seven-plus miles. And then…

****************************************************************

The shout, despite the shock, reassured me. If they could see me, surely I was close enough to make it. I rounded one more curve, and there up ahead, finally, I heard music and saw a lighted path and the large inflatable finish line just beyond. As I pushed up to the top, the race director crouched down and yelled at me like a drill sergeant.

“GET ACROSS THAT FINISH LINE! THIS IS WHAT YOU CAME HERE FOR! GO! DO IT!”

I lifted my hiking poles and sprinted the remaining ten yards to make it look good for the cameras. I’d done it. With three minutes to spare.

One more runner came across while I sat on the grass recovering. Then the music stopped, the finish line came down, and the crew began a rapid cleanup. With temps now below freezing, they didn’t want to be out there any longer than they needed. A few final runners straggled to the top before I left. They got cheers, but no finish. Dem’s the breaks.

What, me worried? Never a doubt. (Photo courtesy Jamie Limbaugh.)

POSTSCRIPTS

While I was happy I finished, I was disappointed in how close I was to missing the cutoff. Then I checked the results. First, I discovered I was the only finisher over 60. So I won my age group! And in the last five years, out of 440 total finishers of the 50-miler, only six have been over 60. That puts me in pretty rare company. And properly grateful to my body for what we accomplished out there that day.

Kudos to the race staff and volunteers; great job out there supporting us! And a special shout-out to Jamie, who brought me a finisher’s sweatshirt and looked after me until I was recovered enough to drive back to my hotel safely. Thanks, and congratulations to you, too!

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4 thoughts on “Lookout Mountain 50: Digging Deep

    1. Actually, I think they changed it a couple of years ago. You can see the winning times got much slower. But they never updated the map, and didn’t say anything in the pre-race information. So a bunch of us were quite surprised at mile 44.

      1. Ohhh that makes sense. Yeah, I thought for the most part, course marking was good, with a few confusing spots. I do know the WT is a nonprofit and they keep race fees low, so I give them a pass on some of those things. Compared to a race that puts on the show for profit, I think they do a great job. Amazing report, loved the drama leading to the end!!!

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