But the seed of this idea did not start with me. A certain amount of blame lies with the infamous Rob Youngren, long of Huntsville and ultrarunning fame. You see, Rob lives right on top of Monte Sano Mountain in Huntsville, site of the Mtn Mist 50k course. So feeling bored/adventurous one year, Rob decides to leave his house at midnight before that year’s Mtn Mist (2006 if I recall), runs the course in the dark, cleans up, then runs the actual race…all pretty much on a whim. Then in 2009 he announces the day before the race he’s going to do it again, this time running the course in reverse starting at midnight before the actual race. For some absurd reason, myself and John Nevels decide to go with him. Rob called it the Reverse Double Mtn Mist (his idea, so he gets naming rights). Sometime in the months following that bit of tom-foolery, I am looking at the point-to-point Mt Cheaha 50k course map and remark to myself that doing a reserve double of that course looks ‘natural’. So on the dot of midnight under a moonless, star-filled sky, I set forth from the Cheaha 50k finish line at Bald Rock Lodge on Mount Cheaha State Park and start running backwards on the course.
Before the narrative, here are my split times in each direction:
Bald Rock to Chinnabee: 01:40
At Adams Gap: 01:35 (03:15 total), leave Adams Gap 03:25 total
At Clairmont Gap: 1:30 (04:55 total)
At Chandler Springs: 1:11 (06:06 total)
At Porters Gap: 00:47 (6hr 53min outbound)
Chandler Springs: 00:39:37
Clairmont Gap: 01:03:01 (1:42:39 total)
Adams Gap: 1:29:52 (3:13:31 total)
Chinnabee: 1:34:11 (4:46:42 total)
Finish at Bald Rock: 2:02:11 (6:48:02 inbound for the race)
It was a bit surreal at first: near-total silence on the mountain; crisp, cool air; a slight breeze blowing leaves around here and there. It was only later in the night it dawned on me that I was out SOLO, in the dark, on an isolated trail system, in the dead of night. But it was perfectly fine, and the realization of all that brought a smile to my face. A sure sign that I was doing something enjoyable, not scary.
So if you look at the course map of the Cheaha race, you can see that the first terrain feature to be negotiated is running down off of the Cheaha massif to the valley below. The formal name for this path is the Rock Garden Trail; the more appropriate moniker is “Blue Hell” for the route down to the Cheaha Lake below. The names comes from the all the blue paint marks that help hikers (for no one can actual run this thing) find their down (or up) through the rocks and tree roots that make the trail. Words cannot describe its difficulty, though several have tried! . Many consider it to be the toughest piece of trail in the state.
Anyway, so I make my way down Blue Hell in the dark with the help of my headlamp, emerging below at Cheaha Lake and pulling out onto a short stretch of blacktop road and then turn onto FS 600-3 (improved dirt road). I was moving a pretty steady clip, feeling wide awake and juiced up from the adventure ahead. About the 45-50min mark I spotted the turn off FS600-3 and onto the Chinnabee-Silent Trail, beginning a 10mi trail section. The trail is in great condition: dry, no puddles, very little in the way of downed trees or other debris; as good a shape as I have seen. The running is enjoyable and coming smooth, so I really enjoyed to approach to Chinnabee Lake in the dark. Soon enough I could hear the rushing waters of the creek that feeds the small lake, with a great piece of trail guiding those on foot steadily downward to the lake. Reached Chinnabee and crossed over the creek at 0140.
Coming out of Chinnabee on the Skyway Trail is a tough climb out of the narrow gorge made by the lake now behind me. But after that is 4mi of steady in-out of small draws and spurs, crossing over old, abandoned forest-service roads and a few creeks. Plenty of steady running and feeling pretty good. After the final creek crossing is a hard left turn and you begin to make the mile-long climb to Adams Gap up at the end of AL-281 and beginning of FS 600-1 (Cheaha Motorway). I got to Adams Gap around 0315, filled up my Nathan hydration pack from a jug of water I had left there earlier, downed a pair of espresso gels from the same stash (caffeine is a good thing at this time of the morning), then made a pitstop in the trees before leaving there 10min later. I was a tad surprised at how fast I made into Adams Gap, told myself to slow it down a touch on the latter half of the course. Otherwise I would just screw myself for the race itself. Plus, if I rolled into the starting area much before 0645, likely that Todd Henderson (race director) would not be there with my spare gear and a warm truck to hole up in for a few moments! Going too fast served little purpose.
Turned out not to be a huge problem, for the next ~6.5mi to Clairmont Gap (via Pinhoti Trail) is probably the roughest on the course: plenty of rocks to down over, a narrow trail on the cant; a tight, winding descent into a small creek following a tough, rocky climb out of it; all followed by another 4mi of technical, rocky trail. The whole thing can beat up your feet and ankles, and the rocks force most folks to walk over them, sapping your momentum as you attempt to stumble forward gracefully without rolling ankles or falling over period! But towards the end of the stretch I was rewarded with some great views to the north towards Talladega and Oxford, then to valleys on the south as well. A 40% moon, no clouds, plenty of stars made for great sights, as long as you paid heed to the trail underfoot!
Came down to Clairmont Gap around 0455, crossed over the road, and began a relatively easy section where the course follows FS 600-1 (Talladega Skyway) instead of the Pinhoti Trail for about 2mi. Turned off the headlamp for a bit and just ran by moonlight. But that respite did not last long, as the course re-enters the Pinhoti, makes a decsent into a dark, desolate hollow before climbing up and over FS600-3 again to the ridgeline of Talladega Mtn. For the last 2 hours I have heard the trains running in the night on a major rail system just to the south and set up tracks that crosses the Pinhoti going north-south to the town of Talladega. and finally coming down to Chandler Springs. Finally the trail comes down to a gap in the mountain at Chandler Springs, crossing a decent-sized creek and set of railroad tracks. I got there just after 6am, moving steadily in the emerging dawn.
So after Chandler Springs is a 3.5mi stretch up and over Talladega Mtn one last time to Porters Gap, and I had a target time of 0700 at the start line. Not too soon, lest I be sitting there in the cold morning (it was hovering right around freezing). And not too late, or I wouldn’t get a enough time to change socks/shoes, other vital gear, and generally get reset for the race. But the climb up the mountain, while not technical, is fairly steep, so I just opted to power-hike that sucker vs. grinding it out on the run. Again I was rewarded with some great views to the South and Southwest towards Horn Mtn (glad I am not doing THAT section of the Pinhoti Trail anytime soon!) as the sun was fully up now and I turned off my headlamp and flashlight. Once over the peak of that section of the mountain, made a smooth and steady descent into Porters Gap. The buses with all the runners had not showed up, and only got a few stupid looks from folks there wondering where I had come from. Checked in the RD Todd Henderson, who blessedly brought a bag of spare gear down to the start. He cranked up his truck, so I climbed in and changed gear in warmth and relative comfort. I was in really good spirits, so once the buses showed up, spent some time BS’ing with Will/Emily Ansick, John Dove, Dana Overton, DeWayne Satterfield, Dink Taylor, Christian Griffith, Marcus Ferris, Mike O’Melia and others.
The Race Itself
Given that my race plan came together fairly well, I only had a 1/2hr of time between 50K legs, which just about perfect. Todd Henderson started us off right at 0730 with the now-standard playing of “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynard and we were off on the Race to the Top of Alabama! Given that I wasn’t exactly going out with the leaders, settled comfortably in the conga line for the first section back to Chandler Springs. I was a might chilly at the start, but I opted for a short-sleeve shirt (orange “No Cupcakes” shirt from Fleet Feet Huntsville, the better to find my dead body should I pop later in the day) and no hat/gloves. The weather forecast called for 70+ deg that day, and were not disappointed, but more on that later.
For the race itself, I enforced a fairly strict 25min run/5min walk-rest cycle, concentrating on putting fuel down during the walk breaks. Plus I was going to power-walk a goodly number of the climbs as well. Took my first break on top of the mountain, watching more people pass me, many of whom I ended up catching later in the day. After the steep, winding descent to Chandler Springs at about 40min, things started to space out some and found more to room to run and set my own rhythm rather than get stuck in a crowd. Even still, talked to several nice folks on the run: a couple of college kids on their first ultra (one of whom is Mike O’Melia’s nephew), a small team of folks from Atlanta area with their coach, and one dude who picked me up after a took a nasty little spill on the trail (gonna have a bruise on my knee for several days after that one). Then there was some gal, obviously a triathlete (wearing a tri skinsuit and wearing some sort of cycling shoes of all things). She was about the most annoying person I have ever heard on the trail; whining, moaning, and generally complaining on every little climb. I doubt she even read the course description or check the course map, for she likely had no idea about Cheaha when she signed up! I swear, I know it is a bit of hyperbole, but my wife made less noise delivering all three of our boys! Welcome to trail running, young lady!
Relatively uneventful and nice running back through Clairmont Gap at about 1hr 42min elapsed. I took a little spill in the rocks beyond that aid station, hammering the nail bed of my left ring finger and seeping blood out of it for the next 30min until I get sufficient pressure on it to clot properly; that sucker stings even now I sit typing this report on an American Airlines flight to the West Coast (yes, traveling on business the day after 100k). Passed a few more folks on a long technical descent before climbing up and out to Adams Gap at about 3hr 13min elapsed.
It was at this point I began to realize that I my splits were the same as the outbound leg overnight. While of course, even (or negative) splits is the goal of any serious runner, the realities of long races (esp. trail ultras) often preclude it. But hey, we’ll see how it goes rest of the day. While I came off of Mt Cheaha in the dark, I would be finishing by climbing back up it in the heat of the day (not bad at 70-75deg, but not exactly cool either). My goal was to run as steady as possible, keeping the pressure on myself to simulate the pace/effort that I will need later this year at Western States.
The out-back getting off the Pinhoti Trail into Adams Gap is a rocky mess, but the steady descent into down the Skyway trail is quite enjoyable. Made my way across two minor creek crossings, up past another aid station, down and through Hubbard Creek before making the approach to Lake Chinnabee. By now I am starting to feel the clear, sunny sky and the temperature a bit. Not sweating through all my clothes, my definitely drinking my one hand-bottle dry between aid stations. Dropped over the edge of the technical descent to the lake, with all the green vegetation in that enclosed gorge. A nice fellow let me pass him right at the top, and I mustered the juice in my legs again to make a swift descent. Unlike past years, the creek was fairly low, no need for ropes or even getting wet (matter of fact, I never got so much as a toe wet the whole 100k). Quickly danced over the available rocks and did the short out-back to the aid station (4:47 elapsed now). Drained 3-4 cups of HEED and took another two Endurolytes; the toes on the right foot keeping threatening to cramp, a rather uncomfortable experience.
The climb out of Chinnabee was very pleasant, I took a little extra time with all that fluid sloshing around in my gut. The winding trail over to the Silent Shelter was in good shape, as we runners passed multiple bands of hikers, boy scout troops, and church groups. Finally popped out on FS600-3, and hit the road section. While doing great mentally and emotionally, the body was getting tired from the distance, the effort, and lack of sleep (over 31 hours awake at this point). I got into a strict 2min run/1min power-walk cycle, pushing down a few calories at each walk break. After 10min I extended that out to 3min/1min while keeping a firm eye on the watch and really beginning to grasp the possibility of hitting negative splits for the race (inbound leg faster than outbound). But to do I had to keep mentally/emotionally tough, and I had to climb Blue Hell!
So turned onto the blacktop, and just like last year (running with Eric Fritz) there loomed the Cheaha massif, nearly a full 1000’ above us with nothing but suffering to get past during the 3/4mi climb right up the side. After passing through the Lake Cheaha aid station, I began the climb of Blue Hell with 95k on these legs already. At first I could run it, then it become a power-walk, and finally I just kept telling myself to keep moving, one foot in front of the another. Do not stop for anything, do not lose momentum, just keep going up and up and up through those accursed boulders rocks and darn blue paint marks until finally, there is the end of it as the trail came out onto the park’s perimeter road.
But wait, it ain’t over yet! Because despite the nice simple line on the course map, we re-enter a short, rough trail and climb another 200’ elevation again to the very top of Alabama and pass by the park’s observation tower at 2407’. Nothing compared to Colorado, mind you, but enough for down here! And even beyond that, the course enters one final insult stage with 3/4 miles more of single-track trail, winding around to Bald Rock Lodge and my eventual finish at 6:48:02 (68th place out of 182 finishers), accompanied by a wonderful, bright, sunny Alabama spring day.
No shame in saying I was pretty happy with it all at that point. Several folks there at the finish knew what kind of silly stunt I had just pulled off, so rose to greet me, doing high-fives and first bumps. Christian Griffith was on the steps chilling and grinning like a villain, having finished in 5:46 (another stellar day in a string of recent races). John Dove was there, then saw Todd Henderson, DeWayne Satterfield, Dana Overton and multiple folks from the Atlanta-GUTS crew. Meandered inside to find my duffle bag and swallow down some Recoverite before mooching a shower from someone staying at the lodge. No hot water at all, but a cold water shower was just fine by me at that point. Though really not all that hungry (rarely have an appetite after such efforts), grabbed a few slices of pizza and a soda (a real Coke, with sugar and all, no diet BS) before heading outside to sit in the grass, soak up a little sun, and jawbone with folks at the finish area.
I started to zone out around around 1630 or so (surprise, surprise: no sleep for 34 hours by now), so took a power nap on the couch inside. I have no doubt folks passed by me and pointed to the stupid fool taking a siesta. Arose around 1730 a touch groggy, but wandered into the main hall of the lodge and found a good crowd of the GUTS folks there. Still not exactly hungry, but knowing I needed to eat some more, I took advantage of the wonderful homemade chili that Todd/Jamie had prepared. Sucked back another Coke with it, had a little dessert to boot. Around 1800 I knew it was time to started the journey home, so gathered my gear, said my good-byes and see-you-next-race and headed out. Made a stop at the Starbucks in Oxford off I-20 for the largest cup of black coffee they would sell me and headed for home, my wonderful wife, and three sleeping boys.
A huge CONGRATS and THANKS to Todd and Jamie Henderson for such a great event. They do such a wonderful job of turning a tough 50k race into a whole event: from arranging the amenities of Bald Rock Lodge at Cheaha State Park, the trasnpo necessary for a point-to-point course, great aid stations, plus post-race chili party on Sat evening. Not enough good things I can say about this pair: good, good peoples.
I can’t say if I’ll strap on the trail shoes for another Cheaha 50k, and no way in hell I will do that 100k stunt again, but definitely will be back next year and years beyond in some capacity (volunteering, crewing, coaching, or otherwise). It is a great venue (both the race itself and the whole area) with plenty of reasons to come back. Be well…..