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!!!”
Trails we follow,