Wednesday, April 16, 2014

War at Windrock

Race porn. We all look at it. Don’t even try and lie. There’s a good chance that right now… while you’re reading this… there’s an open tab in your browser or on your phone that’s linked to Ultrasignup or your other favorite race site. Tisk tiskBut let me be the first to admit… I look at race porn. Though I’m not a full blown addict (the kind that throws dolla dolla bills for a race every weekend), I thoroughly enjoy occasionally browsing the site… gawking at pictures of dirty, filthy runners… elevation charts with long, hard climbs… pictures of huge… mountains. Shame on you! Get your head out of the gutter!!!

So Wednesday night I was lying in bed looking at some porn (race porn of course) when I stumbled across a low-key mountain stage race for the upcoming weekendI hadn’t raced anything since the Wild Azalea 50 back in January, so I was itching for something to get the fire lit. Within a few minutes I was signed up. Let the adventure begin.

Thursday night I packed or should I say… I threw a bunch of crap in the back of the Element that I thought I might need for a weekend in the mountains. I left out from work around 2pm on Friday afternoon for the north Tennessee mountains. I wasn’t looking forward to the 4.5hr drive, so I had to keep reminding myself that I was heading to play in the mountains. As soon as the silhouette of the mountain range filled the horizon… the memory of that long drive disappeared immediately.

The sun was setting by the time I reached the campground. Upon arrival I immediately noticed all of the AT Vs, 4x4s, OHVs, dirt bikes, etc… Fact: Windrock is the largest privately owned riding area in the country.  

I parked and walked up to the small group surrounding a fire and was immediately greeted with a cold beer.

As darkness fell, our small group discussed shoes, races, mountains, beers… you know… the usual ultra stuff. The moon disappeared behind the clouds and a few streaks of lightning went across the sky. At the first drop of rain we called it a night. I crawled into the back of my Element and closed my eyes to the sound of a gentle rain.

I woke up and crawled out of my car and opened my eyes to a beautiful sunny mountain scene…

But the mountain silence was quickly penetrated by Kid Rock’s “American Bad Ass” blaring from the speakers of a bright yellow ATV flying down the gravel road…

At 8:30am… the group gathered together and walked the ½ mile to the start of the first stage…


Stage 1: 4.5m run (9am)

The first stage was the “flattest” stage of the weekend. Being in the northern Tennesee mountains… by NO MEANS was it flat. We all lined up and waited for the bull horn to signal the beginning of the race…

The lead pack took off and we headed up the mountain. I went out hard. I lead for the first mile or so, but John and Doug passed me on a short climb. I am still trying to figure out my pace/rhythm when it comes to shorter races, but after they disappeared around the next switchback, I settled in and enjoyed the next 3.5 miles.

The course was great… technical single track with a bunch of rocks and roots, a few hard climbs with a few sections of downhill where you could really let loose. This was hands down my favorite stage of the weekend. I came across the line 3rd and we all stuck around to support the other runners as they came off the mountain.

Whenever we all finished, we headed back to the campground to relax in between stages.

Around noon I went out and picked up some lunch and drove around downtown Oliver Springs.

I had a beer and took a brief nap before it was time to get ready for the second stage.

Stage 2: 10k* Climb (2:30p) *a little over 7 miles w/ approx 3400ft of gain*

The trail head for the second stage was a few miles away so we all hopped in our cars and caravanned down the mountain. The temperature had risen quite a bit since the morning, so I decided to go shirtless and just carry a hand held. Before the race started, The race director handed out laminated pieces of paper with directions just in case anyone got turned around. A few minutes before the race started a few runners bounded up the trail laughing and smilingApparently another race was taking place… a far more dangerous race than the one we were about to embark on. This was a race where young kids and one older female (the mother perhaps?) would climb a steep, rocky hill… and then race big wheels down to the bottom.

The bull horn sounded and we started the ascent. 75% of this race was done on extremely muddy and rocky 4x4 jeep trails. Most of the mud was avoidable, but it still left everyone with completely mud-caked shoes. There’s really nothing too terribly interesting about the first 5 miles of the climb other than the occasional 4x4 caravan that came sloshing through deep mud puddles. The trail finally turned into single track for the final ascent up the mountain. It was a part of the downhill mountain bike course and it was crazy steep. I got to a road crossing and could see a group of 4 bikers barreling down the mountain.These guys were insane, but come to find out… they thought the same thing about us climbing this trail to the top. What’s the difference between the two nut jobsIf I fell… I fell face first uphill. If they fell… they would fall and tumble until something along the mountain stopped them. I choose my type of insanity.

I continued up the mountain bike course until I crossed back over the road again. Luckily it only followed the road for a few yards before hitting the single track again. I was already sick of the 4x4 roads. The trail opened up and cut across a power line which revealed the first beautiful view of the race. I heard a cheer from Ryan (race director) from the top of the ridge and knew I was close. I was the second runner to cross the finish line and was immediately offered a beer for my efforts.

We sat around and chit chatted until we had enough runners to cross the line to justify a shuttle down to the bottom. 5 of us grabbed a beer, hopped in the back of the truck, and enjoyed the winding road back down to the bottom of the mountain. Ahhhh the joys of trail racing in the South :) 

I had zero desire to clean up when I got back to the camp and apparently neither did the Johns. We found a shady spot, sat out our chairs, and enjoyed a well deserved cup of Crown.

After showering, we all gathered for a pasta dinner and some corn hole.

And to top it all off? Cold brews around a massive bon fire…

That first step Sunday morning hurt. My quads were shot. I knew it was about to be a looooong day…

Stage 3: 34k

There were a few new faces for this race. You had the option to sign up for any of the stages you wanted and a few people just signed up for the last one. It was little demoralizing watching runners on fresh legs bound up the long climbs along the 4x4 roads. I stayed with the Johns for most of the race…

Again… almost all but the last 3 miles of this race was muddy, rocky 4x4 roads. After leaving the first aid station we started up towards the top of the ridge…

Once up on the ridge it was more runnable. We stayed 3 deep as we rolled into the second aid station.

After leaving the aid station we had to take a lollipop route which was a lot flatter than the first half of the race.

We looped around and came back down the rocky path to the same aid station.

I refilled my water and grabbed a snack before heading back out to the course with the Johns.

There was one more massive climb before we hit the windmill out and back. Ryan was kind enough to pull over the shuttle truck after the second stage, interrupt our beer drinking and point this climb out to the group… total Buzz Killington.

I could feel a hot spot forming on my right foot so I told the Johns to go ahead because I needed to change socks. A quick change of socks and I began the treacherous climb…

The climb popped us out onto a gravel road which led us to the next aid station. We were about to head into the section of the race that everyone had been waiting for… the windmills…

The next section of the race was a 5 mile out and back along the ridge where the windmills are located. Though the road is very unentertaining... the magnitude of the windmills made up for it.

It was a little unnerving passing the first windmill. They were MASSIVE! But after passing one or two… the steady WOOOSH WOOOSH WOOOSH of the windmills blades became soothing…

the cool gusts of wind… running under these massive windmills… it was surreal.

Unfortunately this surreal feeling was shattered by the very real feeling of cramping legs. Boo. The last 4 miles were not pleasant…

After leaving the out and back along the windmill ridge… we headed down more 4x4 roads. The course again opened up to an amazing view of the landscapand I could see one of the Johns heading down the road…

I continued down the road until it ended. Dead end. Dammit. I missed a turn. I paced back and forth for a few seconds scanning the ridge trying to convince myself I hadn’t just missed a turn. Of course it didn’t take long for the truth to set in.  Brush, briars, rocks and no flagging… yep… pretty obvious. I back tracked a little ways… sure enough… flags. I hopped down into the mountain bike single track that we had climbed on the previous day. It wasn’t much fun going down on cramping legs…

We crossed over a road and instead of heading back down the 4x4 road… I was thankful we continued straight down the single track. This section was beautiful…  

I could finally hear some familiar voices talking… and sure enough… I popped out at the finish. I removed my pack, took off my shirt, and took a seat in the dirt. I was spent. 4th overall for the weekend.

I walked down to the parking lot where the Johns handed me a beer. We chatted for a few moments about the weekend before we said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. I had every intention of taking a shower before heading home… but I was sun burnt, tired, muddy, and achy… and just wanted to be home.

On the drive home I played the weekend over in my head. Was it my typical type of race? No. I am in love with super scenic, super technical single track… this was mostly boring, muddy 4x4 roads. It did offer an EXTREMELY challenging weekend of racing, some solid single track, gorgeous views at times and a chance to see those amazing windmills up close! The experience outside of the race itself was what made this race great… the amazing race director… awesome volunteers… the genuine people… great beers… camp fire talk… I really couldn’t have asked for a more perfect weekend in the mountains with a better group.

To break up the 4.5hr drive home… I stopped at a Wendy’s outside of Chattanooga to grab some dinner. I hobbled in covered in mud/dirt… sun burnt face… messy hair… and ordered my food.

Wendy – “What happened to you?”

Not wanting to go into detail I replied, “2 days in the mountains.”

Wendy – “Here. Have a Frosty… on the house.”

God bless her heart…

Till tomorrow…







Sunday, April 6, 2014

Rule #7

Rule #1: Don’t die.
Rule #2: No cops. Don’t get arrested.
Rule #3: Have fun.
Rule #4: Keep moving forward.
Rule #5: Smile. You love this sh*t.

These have been my top 5 adventure rules since I’ve started this crazy non sense we call ultra running. I’ve oftentimes passed these rules on to family and friends when they travel… with slight variation on some of the rules…

Of course these are just the first of many rules that will eventually be officially instated. Like for instance…  Rule #6: Drink locally when applicable. This was officially instated a few months ago with the blessings of Jason Green. After this weekend’s adventure… I want to officially announce Rule #7.

Rule #7: Always look before bounding over objects (ie: logs, trees, rocks)

A week ago my wife told me she had to fly up to South Carolina for work, so I immediately started formulating an adventure weekend. I called my buddy Stephen to see if he was free and up to help crew me on a trail adventure out in the Sipsey Wilderness area.

Over the course of last week I plotted a route that I wanted to take. The Sipsey isn’t a formal recreation area and is mostly back country trails with vague markings at the beginning and ends of each trail, so it’s easy to get turned around. And for the record… men do not get “lost”… they get “turned around.” So you can put together what my response was when the moment came when Kati said… “Just say you got lost. Turned around. I got turned around dear.

The last time I stepped foot in the Sipsey Wilderness was when I was a kid. My Sunday school teacher was an avid hiker and always took us on hiking adventures. So to say the least… the area is pretty much unfamiliar to me, and I honestly wasn’t too terribly happy with the map I printed off the internetI shot a quick direct message to Alabama Outdoors asking if they sold a map of the area. They did… but the only maps they had were in their Mobile location and that was just too far out of the way. So what do they do? They rush ship one over to the closest location to me! Boom. Huge thank you to Alabama Outdoors!

Finally Friday came around. I swung by Stephen’s house and loaded up the mountain bikes and headed up to my parents house for the night. 

I met Stephen up at the grocery store to pick up a few supplies and brews. We came back to the house and tried our best to plot out meeting spots for him to drop me aid.

Saturday morning came too soon. I crawled out of bed, ate a quick breakfast, and we loaded up the truck. BRRRRR. I wasn’t really expecting it to be so chilly… but not that it mattered. I would be warm a few minutes into the run. It was a little over 40 degrees when we made it to the parking lot. I grabbed my pack and Stephen and I started walking down the forest road to the trail head. Since my Garmin only had a limited battery life… he let me borrow his 310XT in which I quickly dubbed Regina George” after the first section of trail. It’s plastic, pretty… but a mean girl. It wouldn’t stop buzzing at me.

“See you in 4.5 miles.”

Within the first 100 yards I was thigh deep in a river crossing. If you’re ever sleepy or dragging in the morning… just hop in some freezing water. I promise you’ll be wide awake.

I crawled up the bank on the opposite side refreshed. I waved as I passed a group enjoying a warm fire and cup of coffee at their campsite near the river. I continued along the muddy single track for a few miles enjoying the rising sun peeking through the woods. My left ankle snagged a root about 3 miles in… but nothing serious… just one of those “I really wish that didn’t happen” moments.

After a couple more miles the trail dead ended at an intersection. I purposely over packed my vest since it was easy to get “turned around” out there, so I really didn’t need any aid… but I told Stephen I’d meet him at the trail head so I scurried up the ridge to the top. No one in sight. Humph. There’s no way I beat him here. I gave him a call but reception was so bad that he could only make out a few words. So like two high school sweethearts fighting… I hung up and immediately shot a short to-the-point text telling him to meet at the next aid.

I headed back down the ridge and continued onwards. Everything was going great… until Regina. She wouldn’t stop buzzing at me. I stop to take a picture… BUZZ. I stop to grab something from my pack… BUZZ. I stop to shoot a text… BUZZ. LEAVE ME ALONE REGINA!!!!!! At about the time I yelled this into the wilderness I hit a root and Supermaned it down the trail. I could hear her laughing… BUZZ. I picked myself up off the ground, pulled out the leaves that somehow managed to get inside my shirt, and carried on… Rule #4.  

I continued on the ridge until I came to the next junctionRule #5.

Stephen had biked down to the junction so I wouldn’t have to do an out and back to the trail head to get supplies.

While I was scarfing down a banana and granola bar, Stephen was explaining how there was no possible way for him to meet me at the next aid. No worries… I’d pack heavy and meet him at the next one. It would have been roughly 6 miles to the next aid drop but now it was more like 13.

The next 6 miles were flat and fast. It was on this trail that I came in contact with the first human of the day… Billy. I saw Billy from a distance. Billy was a bigger man dressed in camouflage with a nice big rifle slung over his shoulder, staring intently at the ground…  

Z – “Are you tracking something? Want me to run along the side of the trail?”

Billy – “asdjkdf aldiwea cannalske *spits chew* asldkjfi navsdk.”

Z – “Ok then… good luck!”

No clue to what had just come out of this man's mouth. Gibberish. For a split second… my mind went black and nothing but crosshairs filled my eyes. I could feel the red dot resting on the back of my skull... Sniper Wolf…

Then like Eminem I snapped back to reality… this is Alabama. Billy most certainly did not have the figure of Sniper Wolf… and almost everyone in the woods around here wears camo and carries a gun.

I continued down the trail until it I reached the next junction. I took a right and blasted down the next portion of trail until I saw two men on horseback coming around a curve. I came to a walk so I wouldn’t startle the beasts...

“WHOOOOOAAAA horsie! We’ve got a walker up ahead.”

A walker. A walker. He called me a walker. Thanks Jack and Ennis…

I brushed that comment off with a quick dip into the sub 7min mile range just to prove a point to the enormous crowd of ZERO waiting at the next trail head.

The next section was only about 7 miles long. I was feeling fresh still, I was making good time and well ahead of my projected pace.

Rule #7: Always look before bounding over objects (ie: logs, trees, rocks)

I was moving pretty quickly through a downhill section of thin single track. The trail was well traversed so it had a lip on each side of roughly an inch high… just enough to do some damage to your ankles if you landed wrong. I came across a pretty large blown over tree. Slow down and be cautious? Nope. Speed up and bound.

It’s amazing how quickly the human brain can process scenarios…

As I cleared the log I looked down on the other side… snake. "&$*@!"

Immediately my brain raced.

Option A:  Land. Black snake… more than likely not venomous… land on it and run like hell.

Option B: Dodge. Dodge it… possibly breaking/spraining an ankle in the backcountry… and then having to worry about the snake still hanging around…

I went with option A.

I landed directly in the middle of the snake. I felt it wrap around my calf. I flipped out.

I slung my leg back and forth. I made moves Justin Timberlake would be jealous of... I cursed more than Samuel L Jackson in every movie he’s every played in combined. I ran aimlessly.

The trail ended at a cliff side drop off. After catching my breath and very carefully examining the area... I sat down.

BUZZ. I wanted to push Regina in front of a bus.

Where the hell am I? Did I stay on the right trail? I couldn’t process anything. I was thrown completely. I collected myself and took a look around. I saw a trail in the distance at the base of the cliffs… Is that it? I wasn’t sure if it was the end of another trail or still a part of the trail I was on. So I back tracked a mile or so back. Still… nothing looked familiar. I must have seriously blanked out. 

I climbed to a top of a ridge and shot Stephen a message. “Stepped on a %*$@)$& snake. Having to back track. Looking for the right trail.” 

I guess I probably should have said something about how I was fine and not bitten… but shortly after I sent it I lost service again.

I went back to the edge of the cliff where I had sat down. I decided to venture down to check out the trail below. I climbed down the rocks and hit the trail. It was well traversed so it must have been a main trail.

 I followed the trail for a few miles until I came across a controlled burn area… 

BUZZ. I wanted to throw Regina in the ashes… I wanted to put her in the burn book…

Mile 20ish. I still had no clue where I was... not the slightest. But then… the “Big Tree” came into sight.

I am saved!!!! “I know where I am!!!”  Rule #3.

The “Big Tree” was definitely nowhere near my intended route… but since I was there… I took the time to cool off in the falls and grab a picture.

Now that I knew where I was going, I picked up my pace. I headed back through the controlled burn and ran alongside the river. I saw a group of hikers with frustrated faces and a map out. I gave them directions to the “Big Tree,” double checked my route, and carried on.

I finally got to another river crossing. I wanted more than anything to just take off my socks and shoes and enjoy the cool water. Stephen was probably worried to death since he hadn’t heard from me since the “I stepped on a snake” message… so I opted for a quick half body submerge before hitting the trail back to the trail head.

I got to the top of the ridge and the 10 buzzes on my phone let me know I had cell service. I shot Stephen a message before reading any of them. I told him I was fine and would be here in about 3 miles. After he replied I read his messages. Like a good friend he called the park ranger. The park ranger said it was still too early to worry, so he never came out to the park… Rule #2 still intact. My phone died shortly after reading the last message.

My mother gave me some prayer beads that she picked up from her first trip to Israel. I take these beads with me on every major ultra I run… on every crazy, dangerous adventure. There's a sense of comfort, love and protection these beads give me.

With about a mile left to the trail head… I came across a graveyard. I was running a good pace as I approached the site. I slowly walked into the graveyard, dropped down on both knees in front of an 1800s tombstone, clutched my prayer beads, bowed my head, and prayed.
I thanked God for keeping me safe. I thanked Him for giving me good friends who are patient and would do anything for me, for a family that supports me and my craziness, for the ability to venture out and explore this beautiful world. I prayed for guidance for my sister as her family is making big decisions, for safe travels for my wife in the upcoming week

A few minutes passed and I got up and started walking out of cemetery… I turned back and shot one last apologetic prayer up to the sky… “sorry about the language...” (I’m thinking given the circumstances He’ll probably give me a pass… I like to think He probably found it pretty amusing).

I ran up to the trailhead where Stephen was parked. He just smiled. “Kinlock and a beer?” Rule #1.

Till tomorrow…