My friend Jason asked if I would want to do a 2-person, 12-hour relay in the Black Toe Run: “The trail is 5 miles and 1,400 feet in gain per loop. With the combination of freezing weather, long distances, tough terrain, and bad elevation gain/loss this makes for one of the toughest runs created in TN.” It would be a month after the Lookout Mountain 50, I would have a couple weeks to do some extra hill training, and it had been almost a year since we had gotten together for a run so I readily agreed.
Jason gave me the honor of naming our team. Something to work on during those few minutes of the day’s run when the mind is in problem-solving mode. Hmmm:
Running up Hippie Hill and, a half-mile past it, on up to the radio tower gives an elevation gain of 4-500’ feet in a little over a mile. After two weeks, a couple days each, I could manage a kind of slow motion run up and down four times without stopping to walk. Satisfaction was checked by looking at the steep hills across the hollow and thinking their terrain would be more like the Black Toe’s. Still, each of us doing 6 loops for a total of 60 miles seemed achievable.
The race’s gathering and start/finish area is at the end of a half-mile driveway leading from a county road through hay fields, over the rise topped by the house of the race director’s parents, and into the eastern edge of another field bordered by the wooded hills through which the course runs.
At 10 a.m., Jason, the leaders of the three other 2-person teams and of the eight 4-person teams, and thirty-five solo runners lined up at the start and pledged to push themselves, respect the environment and each other, and to be humble. They took off through a break in a stone wall, their backs to the hills they would begin to climb after a two-mile parabola through field, woods, brook, and the fields we’d driven through. The thirty-four other members of the relay teams waiting their turn to run, a few friends, spouses, and children watched them off and then broke up into clusters. Some went to their cars or tents; others and I slowly walked to the south side of the field to near where the runners would begin the climb into the woods. After cheering Jason on, I went back, got a fold-up chair from his SUV and sat at the edge of the stand of cedars just west of the barn, along the side of which were snacks and the chalk boards to keep track of the runners’ progress. The cedars provided shade from the sun. It was already in the 60’s. The race had been scheduled for the previous Saturday but the one snowstorm of the year closed middle Tennessee down that weekend. Our appreciation of today’s event was enhanced by thoughts of what it would have been like running through snow and ice and trying to stay warm on a day that started in the 30’s and ended in the teens. Sunk back in my chair, feet propped against the stone wall following the tractor path up the hill behind me, I watched three boys and their fathers fishing on the one-acre pond between the barn and the hills. Their lines glistened in the sun and curved in the breeze.
Our plan was to do three loops each and then decide how to proceed from there. Jason’s three kept us within the hour-per-lap pace we foresaw. Although he is much faster than me and relishes the challenge of running through pain, I thought my having run more than him over the past few months might enable me to keep up the pace. I thought I was in pretty good shape. Within the first half-mile, I passed four people who were walking or barely jogging. Obviously doing solo runs, but, dang, it was pretty early in the race to look that tired, I thought. Crossing the brook and following the lane between it and a stone wall, a guy heading into the fields called to tell me I had missed the turn. Back on track, I thanked him and went on ahead to the easy part of the course. Easy, but why was it taking so much effort to run as slowly as I was? I remembered that, at the start of the race, the leaders seemed to be going at a relaxed pace as they left the field and entered the woods. Relaxed, maybe, or straining as I was even before getting to the hills? Other runners would later tell me they felt the same, figuring it was due to a combination of headwind, swinging the feet through dense, though not high, hay and the breadth of the fields obscuring their gradual rise.
Then the hills. On the first loop, I jogged up parts that I probably should have walked and walked up parts that I could not jog. The race site calls the trail technical and there were some rocks, muddy spots, and small gullies but for the most part the footing was quite good without roots lacing the trail as they do on public land where hikers and runners continually pack the ground down to and between them. I enjoyed the quick descents, not wanting to think of the cumulative effect of pounding, jarring the legs in a way not done on the smooth, paved surface of Hippie Hill.
I finished the first loop in keeping with the plan time-wise, but at the beginning of the second, I found myself walking on the easy stretch where I had passed so many an hour ago! “I will be humble,” the race director had asked us to pledge. I was humbled. The run through the field was even slower. In the hills, I walked up stretches that I had jogged the loop before. The third loop: oh the entropy of it all.
Jason took over but was ready for a rest after one lap. The sun had set. Of the twenty-nine who had signed up for the 12-hour solo run, only 11 were still going, some of them barely so. My legs had not benefited from the hour’s rest but I forced them to move, slowly, slowly.
Approaching the entry into the woods and hills, I was already so beat that I thought of cutting back to the staging area. But I figured that the time taken to finish the loop, even walking most of it, would be less than what it would take to go back and have Jason redo what I had just covered. So I strained on.
The cool air encouraged moving along as quickly as possible, the dark and quiet kept focus on the steps and off the fatigue, my new headlamp of 200 lumens provided a much better light unto my path than the old one I had for the Lookout Mountain 50. Apart from the occasional leaning of the head against a tree to not pass out or stepping off the path to let the gas-station pizza eaten during the last break pass out, I kept moving. When I finished the loop, I told Jason that maybe I could do one more: “No,” he said, “You look terrible. I’ll do one more and we’ll call it a day.”
That sounded good to me even though I had done only twenty miles. I went to the SUV, changed shirts, and had a coffee from my thermos. Then, feeling better, went to the snack area and poured a beer from a keg into my water bottle, went to sit by the fire, and enjoyed having nothing to do but chat with son Pascal who had come by a couple times to do some filming.
After Jason completed his loop for twenty-five miles and wrote down his time, he noticed that we were considerably ahead of the three other 2-person teams. But maybe they could catch up if we did not do one more loop. “I’m feeling fine. I’ll go around once more,” I said and started to get ready.
“No. No. You do look better than the last time I saw you but we’ve run enough. Let’s end it here.”
A good way to end. We had pushed ourselves. Our legs were punch-drunk. We would sit by the fire, talk about the day’s run, work, books, and whatever else might come to mind until the fireworks went off. If our lead would stand, a fun little bonus. If not, good for those who kept pushing on!
Trails we follow,