*splat splat splat splat splat splat*
I cursed and picked myself up from the ground for the 4th time of the day.
I had been looking forward to coming back to StumpJump 50K since Joel and I decided to sign up earlier in the year. I ran it back in 2013 and had a blast despite the rough day I had. To recap that disaster of a day for you… I went out way to hard, it was unseasonably hot, I cramped extremely bad, and got stung by a cluster of yellow jackets. By the time I reached mile 26 aid station at Mushroom Rock… I opted to sit down and enjoy an entire beer before trudging along to the finish. It was fun… but wasn’t pretty. Needless to say… this year I was stoked to go back and thoroughly enjoy the entire event. However… my hopes for a solid race were dwindling when I found myself hobbling down the Yellow/White connector at Oak Mountain State Park the Wednesday before the race.
After a few weeks of solid training and racing… I was in the midst of a relaxing week leading up to StumpJump. I had planned on doing a few light runs to keep my legs loose for the weekend… I even mixed in a little yoga with the wifey. About 2 miles into my easy Wednesday trail run… I felt a sharp twinge in my calf. I immediately shut my run down. I was pissed. It’s been a tough year battling a bad case of plantar fasciitis and after 5 months of no/light running… I felt like I had finally defeated the issue and my training/running was back to normal. I don’t believe it was one particular thing that caused the strain in my calf… just a mixture of starting to train harder, some over compensation for my foot issues and possibly some over stretching in yoga (since I NEVER do yoga). Regardless of what caused the issue… my calf was already swollen and bruised.The next day, I immediately called to schedule an appointment with Dr. Beau Beard of the FARM. Thankfully he had an opening and got me in for some rehab. After the session was over… Beau taped my calf to try and draw some of the inflammation out. Picasso would be jealous...
My awesome boss let me off half a day on Friday so I could catch a ride up to Chattanooga with Joel. I swung by the FARM on the way over to his house to get one final, tough ass and hopefully fail proof tape job. Beau assured me he would get me through the race… maybe not pain free… but I would finish. And he also said…
“I’m putting a base layer under this tape simply because it will literally rip your skin off if I don’t.”
Now that is some seriously strong tape…
After meeting up with Joel… we hopped in his 4runner and headed towards Leeds to meet up with Jake and his girl Gabi. A bag of circus peanuts, a bag of jelly beans and a Mello Yellow later... we were at Rock/Creek picking up our bibs for the race and talking with the other runners. We had a good amount of Birmingham folk come up to race and Donna, Travis Grappo and Justin were all at packet pick up as well. I also met a really cool guy named Rokas and I spent a few minutes talking with him and Sean Run Bum Blanton about some upcoming adventures. We eventually broke away from the group and to look around the store. After we got our fill of the Rock/Creek store… we set off for one of my favorite places in Chattanooga… the Terminal Brewhouse!
We were eating, drinking and well on our way to being merry when I noticed Joel hadn’t really been talking much…
For those of you that don’t know Joel… he can literally find the most interesting person in a place and immediately strike up conversation. It NEVER fails. The last time he was at the Terminal for the Lookout Mt 50 miler he met Charlie. Charlie is basically that super interesting local that visits the Terminal on a daily basis for a drink and sits in his seat at the end of the bar. This time… he struck up conversation with some grey haired beauties from the UK. We eventually finished our brews and tabbed out… and Sir Joel was applauded by the husbands of London’s finest on a stellar “conquest.”
Thankfully we didn’t have to worry about a place to sleep since Jake’s sister opened her lake house for us. (Thanks again Jake!!) We sat around and chatted with Jake’s mom and John for a bit before winding down for the night. I knew it was time for bed when Joel started making sleepy time tea… damn… those Brits really got to him…
Once the coffee and oatmeal were finished… we walked out of the lake house into a cool and misty 50 degree morning. 50 degrees isn’t cold by any means… but when the prior week was in the 80s and the sky is spitting cold rain… it becomes cold.
I nibbled on a Clif Bar and stared out the window as we drove the empty Chattanooga roads…
“It’s gonna be a long, cold, sloppy race.”
We parked in the Signal High parking lot and started getting our things together for the race. I had ZERO desire to take off my jacket and walk across the already wet field to the starting area. I finished stuffing my shorts with my racing needs, filled my 12oz soft flask and reluctantly took my jacket off. We walked over to the starting line and met up with the Birmingham crew.
I half debated racing in the shirt I wore down from the car... but decided to remove it and stand in the cold rainy mist with Justin and Grappo…
(Picture Credit: Season Lane)
I decided to start up front simply because I didn’t want to get caught in the bottleneck. There were 268 runners starting the race and I didn't want to fall into the conga line of boredom and death march the first miles of the race. I chatted with Grappo and Justin for a few minutes while the race director gave directions through a bull horn. I had planned to do my best to keep up with them for as long as my calf would allow me. The race director wrapped up his monologue and then we were off!
We started out on a small, fast section along the road before veering off into the woods. They had changed the course (for the better) this year and we would be running the first 6 miles of single track from the old 11 mile race they used to offer at StumpJump. It would make this StumpJump a little harder with more vertical gain and this section was definitely far more technical than the previous crushed gravel route they had in place for prior events. Edward’s Point is one of my favorite spots in all of Chattanooga and I was excited to possibly snatch a view from the lookout. The 3 of us kept a good pace all the way to Edward’s Point but none of us needed aid so we bypassed the view and kept along the single track.
(Picture Credit: David Martin)
We carried on happily chatting all the way to Mushroom Rock. Before hitting the aid station I downed a gel and quickly filled my soft flask. I took out pretty hard out of Mushroom Rock because it was a steep descent down to the suspension bridge and I wanted to be able to let loose and not worry about slowing down for someone in front of me.
Grappo, Justin and I reconvened at the Suck Creek Road aid station and headed up the short portion of road to the stairs leading back onto the single track. I absolutely loved the next section to the Indian Rock House aid station…. rolling single track hugging the ridgeline with constant, beautiful views of a gloomy looking Tennessee River far below with the distant ridgeline across the way popping in and out of view from low hanging fog. These types of days are my favorite to spend in the mountains. I’d seriously take these over sunny days every single time… maybe I should just move to the PNW……….
Justin was having issues with his shoe chip so took a few minutes to get that situated. I pushed ahead because I felt if I slowed down my calf would want to seize up. Up to this point in the race… my calf was being cooperative. There was a constant tightness… but it wasn’t hurting or giving me much grief. I could hear cheers from the Indian Rock House up ahead. I love this aid station. There is always a good crowd of spectators and it always is so energizing! I quickly grabbed a banana half, refilled my soft flask and headed back out onto the trail.
“There’s the wild man!”
I gave a quick high five to my buddy Jake from Roots Rated. I hadn’t seen him all summer because he was gallivanting around on an epically beautiful country wide adventure tour promoting Roots Rated. If you haven’t heard of Roots Rated yet… I suggest you look them up and download their ap on your phone. They’ve basically worked with local experts in areas all across the country and have compiled all things adventure into an easy to use ap to make it easier to discover local spots to explore and check out. I’ve used Roots Rated sooooooooo much while planning adventures… especially when I travel somewhere new!
(Photo Credit: Jake Wheeler)
I left the Indian Rock House and continued along the beautiful ridgeline for a few more miles. Justin and Grappo eventually caught up and passed me. Justin is fast as hell and Grappo is a beast of an athlete. He’s not only a great athlete… but he’s got an internal drive that is so deeply rooted… that it could make anyone envious and wonder where it stems from. To say I respect and admire his drive and Grappo as a person is an understatement.
My plan is always to run my race and compete with myself… so I never get upset or troubled when people pass me… especially people like Grappo and Justin. If you know me… you know that I’m not a competitive person when it comes to running. I may have been competitive when I was on the mound during my college baseball career… or I may be competitive in a pickup game of basketball… or at mini golf… or whiffle ball… but not with trail running. Trail running is something I truly love for the simple act of the adventure behind moving quickly through the mountains.
I hopped off the trail to let Grappo pass…
“Man… Zach. You’re having a hell of a race. You’re looking strong and comfortable. Just be smart, take care of your calf and don’t blow up. Keep it up man!”
That kind of statement goes a long way from someone like Grappo.
I watched them disappear around the corner ahead and I settled into a nice rhythm. I had been with people and carrying on conversation all day… it was nice to be able to enjoy some solitude and silence. I continued a mellow pace listening to the rain fall through the trees… enjoying the sound of my steady *splat splat splat* foot falls on a muddy, wet trail… until…
I quickly picked myself up off the ground and turned around to see if anyone had witnessed my clumsiness. I had hit a small slick rock and lost traction. I’ve learned how to quickly assess the pros and cons of taking a fall. If it’s more hazardous to try and catch myself… I just do my best to roll with the fall to avoid messing up an ankle. This lil fall spiked my adrenaline and I came into the Snooper’s Rock aid station (mile 17.5ish?) feeling pretty good.
(Picture Credit: Season Lane)
I heard a familiar voice from the aid station. Satan?!?
Though as you can see from the above picture... Satan was actually at Snooper’s Rock… her voice is thankfully less familiar than Season’s voice. Season asked about my calf while I filled my soft flask. I told her it didn’t feel great by any means but it was surprisingly holding up! I grabbed a handful of gummy bears and headed back into the woods. It’s always good hearing/seeing someone you know… it never fails to lift your spirits.
I was still alone… happily running and chomping away on my gummy bears when a little yellow one slipped through my fingers and landed in the mud. I laughed and screamed outloud…
“NO BEAR LEFT BEHIND!!!!”
I slammed on the brakes to go back and get him...
I again spoke out loud to myself…
Yea I busted my ass… but dammit… I saved that golden bear.
(I know. I have waaaaaaaaay too much fun by myself… but I was once told… if you can’t get along with yourself… don’t expect to get along with anyone else…)
I started having some awful flashbacks from the next section. This was the section where I was in full blown cramp mode a few years before. Thankfully… I was still feeling pretty strong and running smoothly. I popped out onto a washed out road and started climbing up to the Haley Road aid station. When I got up to the aid station I saw my buddy Nate! I gave him a hug and congratulated him on his phenomenal Grand Slam of Ultrarunning finish! If you don’t know Nathan Holland ...you are missing out.
(Picture Credit: Roots Rated)
I knew I had a mile or so before hitting the infamous Rock Garden. The Rock Garden is exactly what it sounds like… a massive garden made up of rocks and boulders that you have to carefully navigate. I’m still sporting a pretty nasty scar on my shin from 2 summers ago when I took a nasty fall in the Rock Garden with my friend Erin… and it was a dry day!
Since it was STILL raining… and the conditions made for ridiculously slippery rocks… I made the easy decision to take my time through the Rock Garden. It’s a really beautiful section so the slower pace through the Garden wasn’t all bad.
I had successfully navigated the Rock Garden without incident or falling! I was so proud of myself and was in the midst of patting myself on the back when…
“DAMMIT!” I nicked my pinky toe on a root and planted my other foot on a slippery rock and found myself on the ground for the 3rd time of the day. A sharp rock opened my shin and I slowly watched the blood start to trickle down my leg. “Welp… that’s gonna bruise and hurt like hell tomorrow.”
The adrenaline from the fall again had me feeling pretty euphoric when I rolled into the Mullen’s Cove aid station. Eric (Rock/Creek team runner) filled my soft flask with GU Brew.
“Hey man! You’ve got something on your chin!”
I combed through my beard. There was no telling what was in my beard… a gel, mud, a bird… who knew…
“I’m just talking about your beard!”
Hahahah! I instantly felt dumb for not catching his obvious joke…
I smiled and thanked him before heading back onto the trails. It was an extremely short section between Mullen’s Cove aid station back to the Indian Rock House aid station so I had planned on breezing right through Indian Rock House without slowing for aid. Once again… I could hear the cheers from Indian Rock House as I approached. Despite that cold/wet weather… there were more people out the 2nd time I hit this aid station. I got a few cheers and motivational talk as passed through. This is way I love Rock/Creek races so much… there’s always such a lively and supportive community backing any event they put on.
After Indian Rock House you hop back on the initial trail and follow the route back to Mushroom Rock. By this time more than 200 runners had traversed this trail which churned the mud and created some very slippery and gunky trail conditions. I came face to face with a few runners as I started back towards Suck Creek Road. Just when I started picking up speed and settling into a groove…
*splat splat splat splat splat splat*
I planted my right foot in some thick mud along the outside portion of the trail. My footing immediately gave way.
I toppled down and banged my knee on a rock before continuing my fall. I cursed and picked myself up from the ground for the 4th time of the day. The only difference between this fall and the previous 3 was the fact that this one actually hurt pretty bad. I stood up caked in a thick, grimy, cold mud that covered the entirety of my left side from my ankle to the bottom of my armpit. Blood was pouring from my knee... which perfectly complimented the blood that was already drying on my shin. I didn’t bother cleaning myself off because it was still raining and I would be clean (well... appear to be clean) in a matter of miles. But until the rain washed me clean… thanks to the mud and an abundance of beard and long hair… I looked like a crazed swamp yeti running through the woods to the few runners that were still making their way to their first visit of the Indian Rock House aid station. I gave smiles… they gave odd looks… no difference than my normal daily life I thought.
Up to this point in the race… Kendrick Lamar’s “The Recipe” had been stuck in my head all day…
“You might catch me in Atlanta looking like a boss. New Orleans and then Miami, party in New York. Texas I be screwed up, Chi-town I be really pimpin’, but nothing like my hometown I’m forever living.”
But I left The Recipe somewhere caked in mud after the last bloody fall… and Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” played on repeat in my dome piece. Love. That. Girl.
I quietly meowed along to “Bad Blood” (meowed = replacing words with cat’s meows… I know… I’m weird… but fun fact… meowing is a completely normal/daily activity in the Andrews’ household)…
I stopped my meowing when Justin came into ear shot. It just seemed easier not to have explain why a grown ass man covered in blood and mud is meowing to a Taylor Swift song in the middle of the woods…
We ran together for a while until we popped back out onto the road. As we ran the short section down the road I saw my buddy Ry of Roots Rated directing us where we needed to hop the guard rail to get back on the trail. In 10 seconds or less… I said hi, bye and told him how jealous I was of his summer long adventure across the country. We scaled the guard rail and crossed a wooden foot bridge to the Suck Creek aid station.
Once we completed the initial climb out of the Suck Creek aid station… Justin picked up his pace and was not seen again for the remainder of the day. I carried on with a comfortable pace until we started the descent to the suspension bridge. Out of the blue my hip flexor spazed and began cramping. I slowed down to work out the sudden cramp but nothing I was doing was helping. I cursed loudly into the woods and was startled by a runner that had crept up on me from behind.
“Sorry about that man. I thought I was alone.”
He kind of laughed and said he didn’t care. He mentioned he had been cramping on and off all day and completely understood my frustration. I let him slide past and I slowly started descending again. As quickly as the spasm/cramp came… it passed. It was really strange. I opened up my pace a little and cruised down to the suspension bridge.
(Picture Credit: Joel Maxwell)
It was still raining and wet so I took my time across the slick wooden bridge and enjoyed the scenic river below. After crossing over the bridge I started a slow climb up to Mushroom Rock. I could see the guy who passed me a little ways in front of me and saw a Rock/Creek team runner coming up behind me. I got up to the aid station and half-filled my soft flask.
“Less than 2 miles to the finish man! Looking good… keep it up and finish strong!”
I smiled and thanked them for being out there and putting on the race. I was glad to hear there was only a couple of miles left… not because I was ready to be done running… but because 2yrs ago… this aid station was mile 26 and not mile 29ish… and 2yrs ago I was sitting with my ass in the dirt drinking a full beer because it was one of those kind of race days.
The rest of the race would be run along a muddy, water covered jeep road. It had a few small climbs but was mostly flat with a lot of standing water. I was still feeling somewhat peppy, so I pushed the pace and passed the runner that I let slide by on the descent down to the suspension bridge. Before I knew it… I popped out of the canopy and into the parking lot where we had started hours earlier. I was the 8th runner to cross the line in a time of 5hrs29mins!
(Picture Credit: Season Lane)
I walked over and congratulated Grappo (5th OA) and Justin (7th OA) on an outstanding race. I talked with a few other runners for a few minutes before my body temperature was telling me it was time for some warm clothes. By the time I got to Joel’s car I was shivering. I painfully ripped off my mud covered tape job that had perfectly held my calf in place. Again… I had to apologize to a girl passing by for the obscene language. She just laughed… “No apology necessary…I completely understand.” God I’m glad I’m not a girl.
I layered up and headed back to the start/finish area and munched on a deliciously warm cheeseburger while cheering on the other finishers. The sky would rotate between misting and raining… and we matched the weather by rotating between standing outside and under the pavilion. Jake’s support team joined me at the S/F area to wait for our runners. Joel was the first to arrive…
Fun fact: If you aren’t smiling at the end of a trail race… you’re doing it for the wrong reasons…
(Picture Credit: Jake's Mom)
Joel left us to put on warm clothes… but more importantly… to get the cooler of Good People Brewing beer. He came back with a cooler full of IPAs and we started handing out beer to whoever wanted to partake. I was surprised with the amount of people that were excited and knew about Good People Brewing!
The rain had picked up as Donna and Jake crossed the finish…
(Picture Credit: Jake's Mom)
We joined up with the other Birmingham runners (Keith and Ross) and we all sat around, drank and talked about our race experiences. Before long we had successfully handed out the GP beer and started to wrap up. We were just about to head out when I heard the announcer call out Beau’s name…
After congratulating Beau on his finish… Joel and I walked along the road back to his 4runner.
And of course… we had celebratory mini Jagers!
Joel was kind enough to drop me off at Cloudland Canyon after the race. Greg and I had been trying to plan a mountain getaway adventure with Breanna before she moved out to Flagstaff, but errrrybody’s schedule clashed so we would have to make the best of an overnight stay at Cloudland. Greg and Brea had camp set up by the time I got there. Spann said there would be no rain overnight but we took precaution anyways and started constructing a canopy for Camp RainsAlot (CRA).
(Picture Credit: G)
Once darkness fell on CRA we bundled up and circled our chairs under the canopy.
(Picture Credit: G)
Greg cooked a scrumptious shrimp alfredo meal and I scarfed it down as if I hadn’t eaten in days. Greg pulled out the whiskey and I pulled out a few brewskis and we began the adventure talk. Brea had just recently done a podcast called “Running to Mental Health” which discusses her battle with an eating disorder and how it plays into her ultrarunning adventures. I really enjoyed listening to the podcast because it gave me a completely different perspective into Brea’s life and what makes her tick. I’m extremely thankful and honored that Brea opened up on the podcast and even more during our time at CRA to give us a deeper look into her battle. UNBELIEVABLE! I’m blown away by Brea. Not only is she this tough ass runner… but I think more importantly… she’s a kick ass person. Her drive and dreams are out of this world and there are no if, ands or buts about it… she’ll do exactly what she sets out to do.
Greg - “SPANN LIES!!!”
The rain picked up. Every few minutes our canopy would fill with water and then as if on an automated timer… a waterfall would cascade over the edge. The process played on repeat as the discussion transitioned into tales of past adventures… and then slowly drifted into exciting future adventures…
We eventually all went our separate ways to slumber…
I awoke to the sweet sound of happy puppies milling around the campsite. I was relieved to unzip my tent to discover that the rain had stopped. It had howled the entire night and honestly I was tired of being wet and cold.
(Picture Credit: G)
Brea took the pups (Sophie and Sam) out for a short morning spin on the trails. After a few miles she came back and left Sam with us so she could further explore the park with Sophie. I had originally planned to run with her… but my calf was swollen and achy. Everything else on my body was in great shape and just slightly sore… but I knew better than to try and force a run… so I opted for a relaxed, coffee filled morning with Greg by the fire at CRA.
Sam’s whimpers let us know that she was upset and saddened by Brea’s absence… but her pitiful whimpers were short lived… for Greg the magnificent pulled out the magic, dog calming jerky… and before long… Sam was in belly rub Heaven…
“Brea? Who’s Brea again?!”
(Picture Credit: Jake from State Farm)
Jake and Gabi stopped by CRA on their way back down to Birmingham. They strolled up with glorious gifts! Jake handed out supplies and started with the instructions:
- Take your banana and slit it open on the underside
- Stuff it full of chocolate and peanut butter chips
- Stuff it full of marshmallows
- Wrap it in tin foil
- Throw it in the hot fire embers
OMGz. OMGz. DELISH!!!!! This is a MUST try at your next camp out.
Brea eventually wrapped up her run and joined us by the fire. From her pictures… it looked like she had a wonderful run… hate I couldn’t tag along!
Our time at Cloudland came to an end and we broke down Camp RainsAlot and packed up the vehicles. We wished Brea the best as she embarked on a new life adventure in Flagstaff and sent her away with a BUTS sticker...
I started dozing in and out of consciousness almost immediately upon entering Greg’s truck. The next thing I knew… I was purchasing a drink and BBQ chips at a gas station in Alabama. Greg had been talking about a few climbing spots in the area so we made a short detour and did a quick hike to let me see some of the routes. I really need to start back climbing…
This past week has been fabulous. I decided to do some light cycling instead of running throughout the week to let my calf and body heal.
The slow easy ride gave me a chance to really reflect on the past weekend and how blessed I am. It’s been a rough year filled with injuries and frustrating times… but I am so thankful for a body that is capable of healing itself and one that allows me to take these adventures and to run these distances. I’m also grateful to have such a strong support system... from my wonderful wife and my amazing friends... to people like Beau and Sloan of the FARM that help me pursue my adventurous ambitions.
Sitting around Camp RainsAlot listening to all of Greg and Brea’s crazy stories and unreal adventures… and then discussing/planning future adventures… has got me crazy excited and motivated to get back to the grind and pursue some of my own personal ambitions…
Run long, run wild, and howl loudly!