Yesterday, my daughter and I enjoyed our first experience of the Fall Creek Falls Trail Race. I will first give a thumbs-up description of the course and event and then an account of what led to our participating in it
The course is a series of gentle ascents and descents, with only a few spots of tricky footing and only one (for my daughter), two (for me), or three (according to the race site) creek crossings to wet the feet. The organization of the race and marking of the course was great, the post-race snacks and meal plentiful and varied, and the Calfkiller dark ale from nearby Sparta thick and tasty. A bonus for those beginning to move toward distance running and trail racing: if you’ve been working out on a regular basis, the low number of entrants in this race gives a pretty good chance of placing in the top three of your age group and going home with a souvenir coffee mug as well as the light hoodie and gloves given out before the race. (I wore the hoodie for most of the race, which started in the low 30’s.) My training had been on mostly flat terrain, my long run having only one gentle climb of a mile and a couple short, easy ups & downs. This was good enough for a satisfactory run on the Fall Creek Falls’ course along the “Upper Loop Trail”, which has no steep ascents as are often the feature of other trail races, especially those in eastern Tennessee, or even of the ravine in Fall Creek Falls’ lower loop. In short, I highly recommend this race, especially for those who, like my daughter, are newcomers to trail racing or who, like myself, have gotten out of shape and need a gentle reminder of the delights of trail running with others.
Now a bit more about what brought my daughter Kayitesi and me to this race and our experience of it.
About seven weeks ago, Tess asked if I would help her to get back into running. Working full time and finishing up a Master’s degree, she was occasionally working out at the CrossFit gym where she had once been a full-time trainer but, in the last weeks of winter, she was yearning for exercise outdoors. “It will help me to get going if you promise to run with me and we have a specific race to work toward within the next few months. How about a 50-miler?”
I laughed, knowing I was too out of shape for that distance and thinking she probably was too. I had hardly finished indicating why even a marathon within the next few months would be too much when she said “There’s a half-marathon trail race at Fall Creek Falls, March 19.” (It still baffles me how one can converse on a phone and use it to look up info at the same time.) That seemed possible: “Let’s do it.”
The next week, I risked doubling the 14 or so miles a week I had been doing so that I could follow the last half of Hal Higdon’s 12-week Half Marathon Training Schedule: Intermediate 1. My notes for the longest runs of his Week 7 were: “6@1:04:33, walking some of 5th, feeling strain in various places” and “8@1:26:12, 1st time to run on any type of hill”—the first time, that is, since taking a several-month break from running. The next week would be the social high point of the training: running with Tess on Lookout Mountain’s moderate Skyuga trail on a gorgeous end-of-winter 60° day. It was the only time we would run together before the race but we kept informed of each other’s progress, or lack thereof. I had plenty of time to train regularly and progressed in keeping with Higdon’s schedule, trimming about 45 seconds off the long-run pace. Tess struggled to manage one run a week plus a couple CrossFit workouts as she worked on her thesis, classwork and job. The week of the race, submerged in work to be completed in her last month of school, she had doubts about participating in it. But the pact had its desired effect: venit, vidisset, vinceret.
We met for breakfast at the lodge and were joined by my friend Jason, who had a few years ago gotten me to attempt—successfully it turned out—a 50-mile trail run and keeps pushing me to do other ultras. Having within the last six months run the Barkley Fall Classic (“designed to give the runner a taste of what the Barkley Marathons is all about… numerous hard climbs and descents… The most devastating climbs hit at the runner's weakest moments. Everything is arranged to play on the doubts and weaknesses that exist in all of us.”) and the Cloudland Canyon 50K (19° at starting time; he ran in shorts, squeezing his water bottle every few minutes to keep it from icing up), he had signed up for the 50K here but weeks of flu forced him to settle for the half-marathon.
Jason lined up at the front of the starters, Tess and I in the middle. We watched him move ahead during the first mile while we settled into our goal pace of 10 minutes a mile.
As we ran in the bright sunlight, the trees not yet leafed out, I talked of listening on the way to the race to a CD that my friend Don had given me several years ago. The CD had Beethoven’s 1st and 3rd symphonies. The first note sounded as my headlights showed a way through deep darkness on my way to the park; the last note of the Eroica sounded just as I passed the sign indicating entry into the State Park—the refuge, the place for preserving a special beauty—and as the sun was rising.
On mile 4, I had my only fall. The water bottle I was holding shot directly ahead of us and I landed softly in a pile of leaves. I told Tess it was a clear sign that she should be holding the bottle we were sharing even though it was just a few minutes since she had handed it to me for the first time. It would be the only fall for either of us although we would occasionally stumble over a root or rock hidden by the leaves.
About mile 7, I was ahead of Tess for the swinging bridge. To her question if it was me making the crossing so bumpy, I replied that it was the inconsiderate runner in front of me. He grinned and commented on this fun feature of the course. Later on, we would run for a stretch with two young women. “Is he your dad?... Wow, that’s so nice that you can do that!” This trail race was like all the others I’ve been in: runners appreciative of the kindred spirits around them as well as of Nature’s beauty calling us away from cities and paved roads.
Tess’s lack of training mileage was cramping her up. Around mile 8, she stopped to push a muscle. I yelped when I saw and heard it pop. “Much better,” she said and started running again with her usual fluid form. But she could not sustain it for long and asked me to go ahead. I told her I liked to hike as well as run and would stay with her. But shortly after the second aid station near mile 10, tearing up, she pled with me to go ahead. “Okay, but I’ll come back to meet you after finishing.” Refreshed by the several walking stretches, I was able to go faster than goal pace in the last miles, passing several along the way.
I got back to Tess as she was beginning the last mile’s descent to the finish line. She raised her hands in victory although limping badly.
The next day, to my text asking how she was doing, she replied “My joints are not happy with me. A co-worker g ve me Aspercreme… it is helping a lot… Feeling on top of the world!!! Hey, since you have time, could you check and see if there any FCF races coming up in the next few months??! I loved that trail!!!”
Prize: All the land one needs (and possibly much more)
Registration fee: 1000 rubles ≈ $4,000
Location: Bashkirstan, Russia
Course description: Mostly flat steppe; non-technical but grass is high.
Course map: One out and back loop, starting from the shikhan “rise” determined by the race director; the length and shape of the loop is determined and marked by the entrant.
Start & finish times: From appearance of sun to its disappearance
--Unsupported. In addition to food and drink, the entrant must carry a spade to dig up turf to mark the loop’s boundaries. All land within the loop will belong to the entrant.
--Entrant is guaranteed the minimal prize. Gaining land worth much more than the entrance fee is possible on an all or nothing basis. The entrant must mark the loop and return to the starting point before the sun disappears behind the horizon; if not, any right to the land will be forfeited. (Compare The Barkley Fall Classic: “Those who reach [the 22.1 mile] point within the [9.5 hour] time limit…can…choose to end the suffering and run an easy downhill grade for another 7 tenths of a mile, to record a marathon finish.... or, they can strike out into another 9 miles of brutal climbs and descents in an attempt to complete the 50k. Unlike other races with ‘drop-down’ choices, those who choose to continue can no longer log a marathon. At the BFC it is all or nothing.”)
Pre-race meal: tea, koumiss, mutton.
RACE REPORT OF ENTRANT PAHOM (1886)
This report, along with the above information, is taken from Leo Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”
Primary goal: cover a rectangle of at least 24 miles (35 square miles; almost double the known record).
Motivational mantra: “An hour to suffer, a life-time to live.”
Race fuel: a bag of bread and a flask of water
Race gear: hat, work shirt and pants, vest with a pocket to hold the bread, belt to hold the flask, boots. The boots and vest were removed and carried soon after what Pahóm estimated to be mile 3. But towards the end of the race, “he threw away his coat, his boots, his flask, and his cap, and kept only the spade which he used as a support.
Strategy: A common racing error is to start out too fast and then struggle to finish at a much slower pace. Pahóm did the opposite. He walked casually until the morning stiffness was gone, increased the walking pace, stopping only to mark his loop and to have a drink and bread, and then broke into a run as the sun neared the western horizon.
Temperature: “terribly hot.”
Performance. Pahóm experienced the physical and emotional gamut so common to distance runners:
Tolstoy’s short stories such as “How Much Land…” are available online. A published collection is a great gift for children (can be read as bedtime stories), youth, and adults.
Let us pray for all who suffer and are afflicted in body or in mind;
For the hungry and the homeless, the destitute and the oppressed
For the sick, the wounded, and the crippled
For those in loneliness, fear, and anguish
For those who face temptation, doubt, and despair
For the sorrowful and bereaved
For prisoners and captives, and those in mortal danger
That God in his mercy will comfort and relieve them, and grant them the knowledge of his
love, and stir up in us the will and patience to minister to their needs.
Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of all who suffer: Let the cry of
those in misery and need come to you, that they may find your mercy present with them in all their afflictions; and give us, we pray, the strength to serve them for the sake of him who suffered for us, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
--Book of Common Prayer
I am just about to finish an annual 40-mile ultramarathon. It was originally for runners and walkers but has become more of a bicycle rally. I have biked it a couple times but this year simply drove along a parallel route, parked near the six checkpoints and walked across the timing mats. The event is loosely refereed. The challenge I set for myself this year was to keep from drinking for the whole length of the course except at the aid stations next to each mat. At mile 39, I got the urge to run again. And that’s what I am doing now. My stride is lengthening. I’m pushing myself and want to push even harder to enhance my sense of oneness with those who ran the whole way. Maybe next year I will bike the whole course again. Maybe even train so that I can run it or at least walk it. I see the finish line! I’m going to sprint until I cross.
The marathon is Lent. Driving a parallel route is cruising through Lent with token deprivation, superficial reflection, and more concern for comfort than compassion. Drinking at the aid stations is indulgence on Sundays, not counted as Lenten days. The urge to run, to join with others, is reflection on the above prayer that I read last night, Good Friday. Thoughts of exerting myself more next year are discontent with this year’s indiscipline, insensitivity, inaction. The finish line is Easter. I will celebrate it but probably not as wholeheartedly as those who have more attentively and appropriately participated in the Lenten season.
I hope that next year—or next week or today—when I pray that “God in his mercy will comfort and relieve” those who suffer, it can be with more of a sense that God-in-me—God-in-us--has comforted and given relief to those who suffer and that God-in-us will continue to do so.
About four years ago outside the English department’s building, I recognized a guy from faculty meetings and stopped to ask him something. I have forgotten his brief answer, probably getting me to a meeting at the right time or place, but not his own question: “Didn’t you run in the Big South Fork Trail Race?" The guarded exchange of strangers quickly turned to amused recollection of hopping limestone slabs, getting stung by wasps, and wading through rain-swollen streams. Before long, he was encouraging me to pursue other trails. It was Jason who prodded me to run my first ultra: the Land Between the Lakes 50. We ran there again this past weekend though for shorter distances. With appreciation for the friendship that has developed from the camaraderie of the trail, I post son Pascal’s video of the LBL 50 done three years ago.
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!
Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves for a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth.–Gospel of Luke
What entangled paths! What presumption: to think of leaving you for something better. Turning, returning, backwards, sideways, ahead: obstructions everywhere. You, the only way out. And there you are, nearby! You rescue the miserably confused and set us on your path. You comfort me, saying: “Run, I will bring you. I will guide you. I will bring you there.” --St. Augustine, Confessions
At 3:50AM, someone knocked at our front door. We waited for them to give up and scam for their three loaves elsewhere. They kept knocking. “Trouble me not. the door is now shut,” locked for good reason, I could have shouted but kept still. There was a pause of a few minutes but then the knocking resumed.
I “will not rise and give to you, because you are my friend, yet because of your importunity I will rise” and ask, with hostile voice, what you want.
A woman’s voice: “…leave my baby… Kay.”
Leave a baby! “There is no Kay in this house,” I am about to say, then recognize this as the nickname non-family use for my daughter. I wake her and tell her. She leaps out of bed and runs to open the door. She had forgotten that she was to take care of the baby so that the mother could meet her work schedule.
Good Christian that I am and it being mid-Advent, I might have stayed up to watch and pray, starting with the thought of a baby being brought to our home in cold, dark night—by a woman named Mary! I could have watched the darkness turn to the “light of dawn” that Ukyeye, our daughter’s name, refers to.
Poor Christian that I am, I went back to bed.
But I could not sleep. My thoughts soon turned from what had just happened to what could happen in four days. I saw myself stumbling in the night. Muscles seizing up, calories depleted, hypothermia setting in. My headlamp revealed dark trees, blowdowns and rocks projecting from eroded cliffs. I had lost the path. I tripped over a tree root and fell.
The vision reflected my doubts and fears about the Lookout Mountain 50-mile trail run in four days. It was only my second run of this distance, my training for it was considerably less than for the first one, this course would be tougher elevation-wise, I was uncertain about how my body would hold up and imagined long-term damage and consequences for my family as well as for myself.
All elements of my vision did become a part of the trail race. I began stumbling over roots after 35 miles, my hardest fall just two miles from the finish line when I slipped on mud and whammed my ribs. I lost the trail twice in the dark. But there was a key element of the race that had not been in the vision: people offering help along the way. Volunteers at the safety stations every 7 miles assured we had drink and food. Two of my hardest falls came as I was coming up on a runner ahead of me. Each one heard me go down—and each turned back to help me up. The last 12 miles, from late afternoon into the dark, my daughter Kayitesi accompanied me.
Throughout our first four miles together, Kayitesi’s delight in the beauty of the Way checked the haze of fatigue that had been obscuring my appreciation of it. With elfin lightness and humor, she would dash ahead through a stand of pines, stand by the gleaming waters of Rock Creek, angle off to the edge of Eagle Cliff to look over miles of Chattanooga Valley, turn back for glimpses of the sun setting through the trees behind us, catch up to watch as I used the ropes to aid in the steep descent to Lulu Lake, and view the 100’ waterfall in the last of the daylight.
In the dark, she stayed close for my sake. Her headlamp shone brighter and her eyes were brighter: mine, drying up, made it seem like the lenses in my glasses were heavily smeared (I’ll carry eye-drops on my next ultra). It was hard for me to discern between shadows and tree roots or stones so Kayitesi would go in front, calling out obstacles and which side of the path to take: “This way, papa! No—“ my understanding of her words and hand signals blurring like my eyesight, I veered to the right where she told me to keep left, “--this way!” A sigh at my stumbling.
Soon after the fall knocking the breath out of me and bruising my ribs, less than two miles from the finish, we came to a division in the muddy road, neither way having the small reflector flags spiked into the ground to indicate turns. Others were following us. We yelled back to them to look for the turn. After a few minutes, the one furthest back yelled that he found it and we followed him, seeing that the reflectors had been knocked askew by the feet of earlier runners. The one who found the turn and led us for a half mile lost the trail in a soggy stretch of brush, rhododendron, and alders. We floundered, then spread out until I spotted another cluster of reflectors thirty degrees to the right of where we had been heading. A light shone brightly ahead: a volunteer assured us that there were only a few hundred yards left. We finished in joy.
All elements of my nightmarish vision were realized in the run. But a key element of the run was absent in the nightmare: the presence of others, reflections of the divine saying “Run. I will bring you. I will guide you. I will bring you there.”
The one who helped me the most had sprained her ankle only a week before, on part of the course that I had run in the morning. It pained her, I would learn later, as she ran, like the nail-pierced foot may have pained the one who leapt into the clouds, providing light for those on entangled paths.
Trails we follow,