First things first: this is NOT a race report from a Salomon Rock/Creek Trail Series race!
Last Saturday, an inaugural 100k / 100-miler was held in the deep woods of Georgia’s Cohutta mountains, starting from Fort Mountain State park and held primarily on the Pinhoti trail. Only the most dedicated trail runners in the southeast ran the event. More than half of those failed to finish, many became lost for short (or long) distances, and there are basically no photos available.
This was a grassroots event, to say the least.
This race report is very, very long. But it’s also maybe the most compelling and interesting trail race report I’ve ever read. When you have a few minutes to spare, it’s well worth the read. Click here to view John’s Rock/Creek Race Team profile.
In lieu of race day photography of any sort, I’ve attached a “stock photo” of John to the right. John, thanks for taking the time to write about how your epic day unfolded!
1. Dodging tornadoes
So after a few months of intense mileage the time had finally come. My friend Bailey (who would later finish the 100k) and I headed out of Jackson and into the unknown of the Cohutta Mountains of North Georgia. As we approached the edge of Fort Mountain State Park we couldn’t help but notice the dark clouds and the howling wind that was making its way in. Despite the news reports of damaging winds, hail, and tornadoes, I was fairly confident that the adverse weather would move out before the 4:30am start. At least, this is what I was hoping.
We picked up our cabin key, and headed to #4, quickly unpacked our gear, and went to the pavilion for the pre-race dinner and briefing, and to drop off my drop bags (These dinners are so funny to me; everybody sharing about how they are excited for the journey to come, all-the-while trembling inside about just what could really be, but hoping this won’t be the case).
I ran into Roxanne (Zobava, race report here) who was signed up for the 100k, along with a friend of hers. It was good to see a familiar face and get their opinion on the course. Roxane had run out here previously on training run, and is a veteran of the high mountains out west, so I wanted to hear what her opinion of the course was. She claimed it to be pretty non-technical, with very runnable parts all throughout.
This was good to hear, as the race website and facebook page had no real elevation profile …just horror stories about these big-A climbs. No matter, I thrive on big climbs, and love every second that my calf muscles feel as if they will soon disconnect from my Achilles.
So we ate, listened to the race director tell us how the course was marked, and then state that he thought there was maybe 17,5000-18,000 feet of climbing in the whole thing, which is what we all had figured on (this would later prove to be a bit of a poor estimate by most accounts). Soon after, it was off to the cabin for a final mental review of the day to come, along with one final gear-check. Then off to sleep… BUT THEN MY ALARM WENT OFF BLARING IN MY EAR!!!!! Man, that wasn’t sleep, that was a nap!
2. The first 20
3:30am brought with it a quick look out the window, just long enough to notice that the wind was still howling, and that there were remnants of the storm (that had kept me awake) in the form of fog and light precipitation. I ate my pre-race breakfast (snickers bar), downed my French-press coffee (mmmm, french press coffee), hit the toilet (hey, as every ultrarunner knows this is a crucial part of the pre-run ritual), and headed for the start line …which consisted of two flashlights across the road …classic. I threw on a $1 poncho to keep myself somewhat dry, and soon enough, the inevitable happened: the RD said “go.”
The beginning few miles of the course wound up-down-and-around the park, with a few spots that you had to be aware of due to the slipperiness left from the night before. Being a new trail, none of us at the front really knew where we were going, and in the dense fog it made it tough to spot the markings. After maybe 2 miles we took a right turn down a trail, until we heard the others behind us yelling “WRONG WAY!” We made it back up the pitch to the correct trail, and quickly made up the gap that had formed.
“Glad I got that out of the way!” I thought to myself. Given that many of the other runners ended up taking a wrong turn and getting lost, some up to 4 hours off-course, I was happier than I even knew to get this out of the way early!
Scott Eppelman soon took the lead by maybe 200 yards, never far enough to be out of sight. In the early morning hours, it was easy to spot his glowing dome heading down the mountain which led us out of the park, and to the first aid station. I really wanted to hit this spot in 10 minute miles, and as I looked at my watch, I had covered the 6.9 miles in roughly 73 minutes… perfect.
I continued on my way, crossing several creeks, and paying attention to the trail markings. Truthfully, since I knew that we would be on the Pinhoti trail for the majority of the race, I paid more attention to looking for these markings than the official course markings, a plan which paid dividends for me, allowing me to quickly come up to Scott, who was having navigational issues, and also allowed me to not worry that I hadn’t seen a course marking in a while (even though the course was marked with blue and white tape, the night and the wind which would wrap them around the trees made the markings hard to spot).
3. Dogs and Zombies
Once I got to Scott, I knew that running with him for a while would keep my enthusiasm in check, while also allowing us to build up a lead on the pack. Scott is a veteran of 100-milers, with several Hardrocks and a Badwater under his belt. With this type of experience I knew where my place should be. We traversed the terrain and made it to AS2, mile 13.3. At this point, I quit looking at my watch. I knew better. I knew that running with Scott for a while would keep me where I wanted to be.
Leaving the aid station, Scott took out a bit of a lead, and I was happy to follow behind him for a while. I maintained a distance of about 50-75 yards… close enough to continue to keep my pace in check, but far enough as to not seem too pushy. He was the vet here, and I was gonna honor that by not running right behind him. This took us to a forest road that signaled the arrival at AS3, mile 17.7. After downing some PBJ, we left the AS together down the road. The road soon enough took a left onto the single-track, which would let us climb up a bit, though the climb at this point was pretty rolling, with not too much terrain that would dictate a walk.
HOWEVER, before the single track we were greeted by two angry dogs! Nothing adds that zing of excitement to a hundred miler in the mountains like two freaking dogs barking and running after you! I knew that out-sprinting the dogs had a very low success rate, so I utilized the technique from this month’s edition of Trail Runner Magazine: I turned around at the dogs, raised my arms up over my head, and made a zombie-like sound… and it worked! The dogs looked at us like we were idiots, but then left us alone!
So the next few miles gently climbed to AS4. In the process, I had managed to leave Scott. I’m not sure where this happened, but he definitely was not there. I looked for my drop bag to get my baggie of nutrition, but my drop bag was not there. No worries though, said the volunteer: “it’s on the way!”
“Well, that’s good to know!” I said …and I did mean this, for my drop bag had my cold-weather reinforcements in it for the night time return trip, which I knew would be cold. So, I grabbed some food from the AS, stuffed a few Hammer Gels in my left pocket, a few cookies in my right pocket, and after topping off my bottle, headed out into the unknown, in the lead!
4. Onward and upward (and …upward)
The next 4.9 miles were on a forest service road that went up… and I mean up and up and up! There was no downhill on this section, just a 4.9 mile climb up into the low-lying clouds. I quickly settled in to a climbing pace that had me a bit faster than walking, but not at a running pace — just fast enough to keep momentum — as long as I kept my head down and focused on what was directly in my periphery. The few times I did look up just pissed me off, as there was no end to this climb anywhere in sight! Just a FS road that went up.
The crappy thing about these types of climbs is that they are designed to be gone up in cars, with engines, not on foot. This means that the gravel is uneven, and the road is steep and straight, no switchbacks or “good lines” to be had. Just a hellacious grade, and gravel chunks under your feet. So, up I went! Soon enough, I entered into a cloud bank and was greeted by howling winds and big drops of condensation — basically raindrops that had yet to fall. I just kept my head down and pressed on.
In hindsight, this section is probably where I stretched the lead out. I put in a great effort here, staying properly fueled the whole time, and never getting into the red. But alas, the fun soon ended as I made it to the top and was greeted by AS5, and a volunteer saying “What’d you think about that climb?” I responded “I’m trying to forget about it!” I refueled, stuffed my pockets with food, and head back out.
Following every uphill there is a downhill, and luckily, this was the case. No worries, as I cruised out and down the mountain, with the only real issue being the pounding of the gravel under my feet. I managed to find the side of the FS road where there was a thin layer of leaves, and this helped reduce the pounding I was experiencing.
Finally, the clouds of the morning were beginning to clear, and I was able to see the most beautiful topography around me… the range was absolutely stunning! Being from Mississippi, I am rarely able to experience such things, and being able to be out there amongst creation, surrounded on every side by mountains, was really awesome. This is why I do what I do, to experience things like this!
Cruising on, I hit AS6 and the 50k mark of the journey. Feeling great, I was ready to turn my focus to my pace, and maintaining the lead that I was given. The course from the last aid station through AS7 marked some of the best trail I experienced on the day, with moderate climbs and downhills, a mix of trail conditions from single track to old fire roads to some good muddy parts. This section also led us off of the Pinhoti and onto the Benton Mackaye Trail. Luckily, the trail markings were very similar, with white diamonds being the correct path to follow.
5. One freaking wet rock
However, it was in this section, around mile 35, that my day took a sharp, painful turn. On a rather tame portion of trail, as I was cruising along at a moderate pace, I planted my right foot and immediately slipped backwards. This was not a typical “kick a root” and superman into a forward roll — I am a pro at those — this was like slipping on ice that you did not see, while putting all your weight into your foot strike. And falling backwards. I immediately fell hard onto my right glute, right on a rock.
When I fall, I almost always spring right back up, not allowing the trauma of the fall to discourage me; however, this time was different, and I knew it immediately. As I made it to my feet, I could tell that I was screwed. I had a deep, deep bruise in my right glute that had already begun to throb. I pressed on, but could tell that this was going to be a problem. I began hobbling on to the next aid station, determined to play this out.
As I got to AS7 and mile 37.9, I was greeted by the volunteers very enthusiastically, and I was really interested to see if my drop bag had made it.. and it had! I got my fuel, and continued very tediously with a noticeable limp. The problem with a deep bruise in your glute is that you cannot climb or descend normally, and I became painfully aware of this. I began to give a lot more on my right leg, changing my gait. Anyone who runs knows that this is a strategy that is doomed to fail, but I had to try something. I was now relegated to walking up every hill and walking down every hill, and trying to run on the flats. After a very short bit of time, my right hip-flexor became severely stressed, and I began turning my right foot inwards as I took a step so as to not stress this out. This created a permanent walk, with no running to be done.
The course from AS7 to AS8 is the most remote part of the course, leading us through the wilderness, up and down climbs, with the only reminder of reality being two places where jugs of water had been placed. I made it to the first jug, but my leg felt terrible. I tried to change the scenery in my mind by putting my headphones on; this worked for a moment, as I tried my hardest to at least jog. This lasted only a few moments, and the sharp pain that seared through both the front and back of my leg was too much. I went back to my walk, and just tried to become appreciative for the experience that I had.
6. John the Hiker
After a while, a runner passed me, and after another while, another runner passed me, and then another. I can’t lie, I was disappointed. I had put in a lot of time and effort, and had sacrificed quite a bit, to train for this race. I had come into it in the best shape of my life. I was running wonderfully, strong, staying fueled properly, and all it took was a freaking wet rock to ruin my day. I continued to hobble ever so slightly forward, immersing myself in my brain — having the world’s biggest pity-party, and I was the only one invited.
After wallowing in my misery for about 3 hours, and finally coming upon the second water drop, I knew my day was over. Still had a good ways to go to get to the AS8 and get a ride. Something had to change… and then it just all clicked. I found a good hiking stick, and quickly became “John the Hiker!” My new persona allowed me to take some stress off of my leg by putting weight on the stick, and I changed my “woe is me” attitude into one of a hiker, content to take my time and look around and observe the beauty, and be thankful to be out there!
Off I hobbled, determined to have a better attitude and to enjoy my time in the woods. I had to realize that I rarely get to be out here, living in MS, and see these things and smell these things and enjoy this terrain. Despite the continued ache in my leg, I hobbled on, enjoying every step, and being thankful for the opportunity.
So I eventually made it to AS8, mile 48.6, and informed the volunteer that I my day was done. “Not here it ain’t… if you stop here you will be waiting ’til 12:30am for a ride.” Man, this was tough news to take. My entire hike had been to get here and call it a day, but now I had to go 3.2 miles onward to AS9! After topping off my bottle and grabbing a few goodies from the AS, off I went. The last 5k to the AS was on a gently rolling FS road. I was passed by another runner, and was soon greeted by the few that had made the turn and were headed for home.
I began to get a bit frustrated, and tried to speed-hobble …and regretted this decision very quickly. Due to my now horrific-looking gait, I began stressing out my groin, and it felt like it was popping! So back I went to my hiking pace.
Finally, having taken 5 hours to go 13 miles, I made it to AS 9, mile 51.8. And that was that. Luckily, they welcomed me with open arms, and managed to find me a ride back to the start/finish relatively quickly. I am more than grateful to these volunteers; they entertained me with good humor, and even let me sit in a vehicle to stay warm until my ride got there. I watched as other runners made it to the halfway point, picked up their pacers, and headed back out. I got to see some runners come in with smiles, but others with a sense of dread at the coming nite.
7. Relentless forward motion
As I was shuttled back to the starting line, I was informed that of the 4 people that had passed me at the end, 2 had dropped out, but that the leader was going strong, looking for a sub-24. I remember seeing him, and I knew he would make it (he ended up with the W, just missing 24 hours …congrats!). I got back to the cabin, showered, ate, and awaited the arrival of my friend Bailey, who hobbled in after 16 and a half grueling hours out there, with a 100k finish. We commiserated for a bit, discussing the difficulty of the course, and though about those poor souls that were still out there. But inside, I sure did wish that I was one of them.
The next morning we packed up and left, heading out of the park, down the mountain, and back to Jackson. A few days removed, the bruise is healing slowly, and the hip and groin are not as stressed as I thought they would be, which tells me that I did the right thing. Had I continued on, there is no doubt that I would not have been able to run for a few months, and that’s no fun …no play and no run make John a dull boy!
For the first few days, I thought I would never go back and do that again, but now I’m ready to plot my revenge. It is one thing if you beat yourself. If you don’t train well, if you don’t eat right, if you don’t hydrate as you should, if you don’t run smart. But this is not the case. I trained well, fueled right, ran smart. The course beat me. I did not beat me; the course beat me. A freaking rock on the freaking trail beat me. And now I am hungry for revenge. I will lick my wounds, and I will be back to the Double Top 100 for vengeance!
Congrats to all the finishers of the 100 mile, and the 100k. Your perseverance on the course is a true testimony to your passion for the sport, and I really can appreciate that. Thanks to all who ran with me while training for this, and a big thanks to those who put up with my running-induced mood swings for the past few months.
Despite the result, I am happy to have been out there. I freaking love this sport and look forward to the next challenge that it has to offer. Our moniker, Relentless Forward Motion (RFM), is not just while we run, but is for life: we move forward always, unrelenting, not allowing the setbacks and disappointments of this life to stall our progress. We overcome hardships and challenges with more wisdom and thicker skin, better able to tackle the next challenge, whatever challenge that may be. LONG LIVE THE RUN! VAMOS!