The only bad races are the ones you learn nothing from. On June 19th, BPC athlete Rachel Randall embarked on a 3 day stage race through the woods of East Tennessee. Here is her account of the fun and what she learned:
Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race – 60 miles, June 19-21
Day 1: Raccoon Mountain, 18 miles 2:49:05, Shoes: Hoka Challenger ATR.
This course is billed as “flat for east TN”. It definitely was WAY hillier and more technical than anything we have around Memphis, but I loved it. It was rolling hills, slightly technical with rocks / boulders etc.. to dodge. It was definitely played to my strengths. I hated being behind people and ran way too hard at the beginning because I kept passing people, but I realized early I was out of breath and made myself slow down. The group I was running with somehow missed the middle aid station, (RD says we probably ran 100 yards out of the way and has no idea how we did it), so that sucked because I was out of water for a LONG time. It was ridiculously hot and humid on Friday. I went from miles 4 – 13.5 with only 20 oz, so this was obviously not ideal. We were in this section called the “small intestine” that is very curvy and full of switchbacks. Somebody could be running right next you in the same direction on a completely different trail, and be miles ahead or behind you in the race. Tight trail, tough running, and heat/ humidity made for the hardest conditions I have ever run in by far. We were rewarded with a rain shower the last mile, which was awesome! It couldn’t possibly get more humid, so the rain just felt great and then I was done! I worked REALLY hard at rehydrating all day – Endurox after, followed by lots of Nuun continuously, and I still didn’t pee until dinner. This had me pretty freaked out, knowing I had two days of hard running left. Other than that, really good fun day. Recovery: I soaked in a baby pool of ice for 15-20 minutes, made sure to eat a big, quality lunch, took a nap, and hydrated like I mentioned.
Day 2: Lookout Mountain, 22 miles 3:49:49, Shoes: Brooks Cascadia 9.
Weather was WAY better. It was raining at the start, and a little cooler and overcast almost the entire day! This course had lots of really long climbs (like 2-3 mile climbs!), but then you are always rewarded with long stretches of runnable trails. It was a 5-6 mile lollipop, followed by a 10 mile lollipop, and finally the first 5-6 mile lollipop in reverse, with an added section. At one point, the climb was so steep through rocks that there was a rope to hoist yourself up. You had to come back down that at mile 20! When we went through this section the first time it was really wet, but thankfully it dried some before we had to come back down the rope and rocks. There were two really tough climbs and the Powerline climb near mile 10-12, but these were part of the Lookout 10k course, so I had actually “run” those before. My hiking on the climbs was just slow. SLOW. I’m sure it is majorly from my lack of practice and a little bit my short legs. I would get passed hiking up hills, and then would catch TONS of people on the downhills and flats. I finished this day really strong, especially compared to how I started. My first 10 miles were pretty much “I’m so tired, this is hard, how am I going to run 20 more miles tomorrow, let alone finish today?” and my last 12 miles were really strong and I ran really hard. This was a surprise to me, because in my training, the second day was ALWAYS the hardest. When I got to the end of the second lollipop, I knew I had a blister on the side of my big toe – it had been really rubbing, so I sat down quickly at the aid station and rubbed Ruby’s Lube on it, and I didn’t feel it the last 6 miles at all. At mile 21.5 I ran through a creek, and it was really hard to not just stop and lay down in it right then. I felt great when I finished, but my quads tightened up throughout the day, to the point of Erno and James saying, “Umm…. how exactly are you going to run tomorrow if you can’t even walk??” I followed the same recovery strategy as the day before – today’s ice bath was the creek, didn’t stress so much about hydration because I didn’t get as depleted, and ate and drank Nuun all day. (and possibly a beer or two)
Day 3: Signal Mountain, 20 miles 4:46:06, Shoes: Brooks Cascadia 10.
Weather was freakishly hot and full on sun the whole day. I taped up my blister (blister pad from a drug store covered with duct tape), and I could feel it, but it never got worse the whole day. I was very pleasantly surprised when I took my shoes off after the race. The race organizers make it very clear that the first day is fast and easy, the second day is fun, and the third day is hard. They make sure you know that even though the miles are less than Day 2, your time will be slower. I knew it would be hard and technical, but there was no way to prepare me for the difficulty of this course.
The first mile was a long, fast downhill and my quads were screaming. After that, it was a climb all the way down to Suck Creek and then back up to Mushroom Rock. (This is all in the Stump Jump Course.) At some point during that, I either forgot about my quads or they loosened up. It took me around 1:15 to go 5.5 miles. SLOW. And I was working hard and running anything that was runnable!!! It was just HARD. After that, nothing was part of the Stump Jump course, and therefore all new to me, and it was CRAZY technical. Tons of rocks, steep climbs, really curvy trail, then what felt like 100, uneven, giant stairs to climb up to miles 12/13. I had to be on all fours to get up them. At the top was the Signal Point Aid Station, and my family. The race people said this was mile 11.4, I had heard it was more like 13. (Side note: If you ever run this race, the stated mileage of aid stations is consistently way off.) Regardless, I had been “running” for 3 hours and cut off was 5 hours. I never DREAMED I’d have to worry about cutoffs, especially as good as I felt and as strong as I was running. My brother Trapper had told me if I got to mile 13, I was golden. The guys I was running with said, “no way. 13-17 is the hardest part of the course. Then you’re on jeep roads.” Both my brother and these guys had done the stage race multiple times. Trap says he was always in such bad shape by time he got to 13, he didn’t remember the next part!
Anyway, my son Robert was FREAKING out about my time at the aid station and barely let me fill my bottles before he insisted I needed to go, and I insisted I was going to be fine. Little did I know! OMG. Miles 13-17 was exhausting. Mentally challenging. It was giant rocks above a creek, very poorly marked, no clear trail at all, and flags were few and far between. Several times I looked ahead of me, had no idea where to go, and just whimpered. A 5x stage race veteran I was running with said “Whoever made this trail is f#@ked in the head.” I was beginning to worry about time and had no idea when we would make the aid station. We DID make it, and when I got to this aid station, my family and friends were unexpectedly there, and I burst into tears. (And not because Robert was still yelling at me that I wasn’t going to make the cut.) That section had been SO HARD. It was 4:05 on the clock, and I was pretty sure I could make it by 5, but I never dreamed that this would be an issue. The RD was putting ice down all the guy’s pants and put ice in my bra and, holy crap, – that was AWESOME! I filled my bottles, said goodbye and good luck to the guy I was running with and hammered it. This section WAS jeep road type trails, more like a really wide yellow trail with boulders and was also a steady climb all the way up to the finish. (Remember that fast, steady downhill at the start? What goes down, must go up! First lesson of the stage race.) I ran every step as hard as I could, and finished with 15 minutes to spare. On those last few miles, it was so nice to be able to run again and know where to go, I didn’t even care that it was a long long climb, I was just thankful I could see the trail and wasn’t climbing over giant rocks and trees.
One note about this day – because it is so technical, the aid stations end up being really far apart. I carried an extra body bottle filled with Nuun in my pack, and had to use it twice. Granted, it was HOT!!! But I would recommend doing this no matter what.
So that’s all… I did it! Finished the Stage Race in 11:25 for the three days. I honestly am surprised about how strong my running was, and how well my legs held up, and that I never had a low spot. I never questioned putting food / drink into my body. Even if I had only 1-2 miles left, I knew as long as my stomach was calm, the best thing for me was to keep eating and drinking. If it didn’t help me that day, it would help my recovery and help me be stronger the next day. I thought I was going to have a hard time making myself get out of bed each day to run again, and I just didn’t. I loved every minute, and looked forward to every day. Each day was SO different. And I was really prepared and really strong.
The things that worked:
S caps (usually one at start and one in middle each day)
Tailwind in my bottles, usually 2 packages a day
Gu Chomps for when my bottles were empty – I could eat them slowly, and they would hold me over until I had Tailwind again.
Shoes: Switched every day because they were always wet from sweat or creeks.
Blister on second day – put a blister pad and covered it with duct tape for the third day – was perfectly fine!
Recovery: Endurox and an ice bath INSTANTLY when I finished each day followed by a meal and a nap ASAP.
Sports Legs – an hour before the race each day, and when I finished. No idea if that helped or not, but my legs were in good shape.
Pack – Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta designed by Jenny Jurek. It was perfect. No chafing, tons of room, and gave me my hands free to climb.
What I wish I had done – hiked up steep hills more and hammered them down. I did this once with my running buddy at Shelby Forest and wish I had done it once a week. I was a really really really slow hiker. The only time I got passed was on the climbs that were not runnable. My quads were killing me on the downhills at the beginning of the third day.
Taking “sports legs” at night keeps me up ALL night. Made that mistake on the 2nd night, and won’t do that again, no matter how bad my legs hurt…
I had a long, hard marathon build up for a late April marathon, and ended up falling on a sidewalk, injuring my hamstring, and didn’t do the marathon. PT, time off, and then started a build for the stage race the first week of May. I had basically 6 weeks to get ready. I ran on trails for as many runs as possible, hilly routes, and practiced fueling and recovery religiously. I had about a 10 day, pretty drastic taper.
So with only 6 weeks, my coach and I both agreed the timeline was less than ideal… I felt like it was rushed, but I don’t know if it’s because of the base I had or what, it was fine! I went into the race confident, rested but not TOO rested, and knew I had to be careful and take it easy because I’d never done anything like this before. I think the short taper worked because it wasn’t following a very long training block. I think doing all my runs late morning was HUGE because it gave me lots of experience with the heat and nutrition and gear.
My coach, Ben, was amazing support for me in this crazy endeavor. He really tried to understand why I just had to do it, he was my biggest cheerleader and mentor day in and day out, and obviously provided a great training plan. It worked. We did it!!!
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